In today’s healthcare environment, medical images such as MRIs, CTs, ultrasounds and x-rays are critical for rapid and accurate disease detection, diagnosis and prognosis. But in terms of IT management, they come at a cost. Storing and managing these medical images has become more challenging in recent years as the amount of patient information has increased significantly. As imaging modalities advance technologically, so does the size of each imaging study. Healthcare providers are challenged with storing this data electronically, forever in many cases. Have IT infrastructure advances and data management techniques adequately matured to help ease the pain of medical image management?
Tony Turner, Strategic Healthcare Partner Manager at NetApp notes that “Effective data storage and management is becoming even more important for healthcare organizations as the amount of data produced by imaging modalities continues to rise; but the good news is that along with the amount of data we’re collecting, the IT infrastructure is also advancing.” Tony says, “Data management is much less of an issue for organizations with the right data management tools and infrastructure in place. Cloud offerings have matured to the point where they are a viable option to help solve this challenge. By nature, the physics behind medical imaging has always been challenging. Image files are large and networking pipes are small. Moving these files efficiently around has always been difficult, especially when moving data off-premise, across expensive wide area networks (WANs).”
Hospital providers are not early adopters of technology and the thought of moving patient healthcare data outside the walls of their facilities is not an easy decision to make. This is largely due to data privacy and security concerns. Instead, many have turned to a hybrid approach in which they move some applications or disaster recovery imaging copies to the cloud while maintaining more critical data onsite. This has allowed them to leverage the cloud, while still protecting their patient’s healthcare data. Tony adds, “Many healthcare organizations have realized the potential of hybrid IT as it decreases the time to deploy applications. With the cloud, IT resources are freed up so staff can work on other projects that create a more efficient healthcare environment, and provide a higher level of patient service and satisfaction.”
Hybrid IT is also beneficial for healthcare organizations required to comply with HIPAA regulations and image retention policies. Tony notes, “Image retention is typically governed by state regulations, but within certain states, hospitals may have their own regulations that exceed these state requirements. Most hospitals are required to retain images for seven years, except in the cases of pediatrics and mammography, where images are stored indefinitely. These requirements become a real challenge for IT, as studies have shown that most images will never get looked at again after 30 days, leaving behind mass amounts of unstructured data that still needs to be maintained. This is another reason why a hybrid approach makes sense for healthcare organizations, as much of the less frequently accessed data can be moved to the cloud.”
What are some other ways healthcare organizations can reduce the pain of medical image management? Having the right solutions in place are key. “Due to infrastructure limitations, IT vendors have historically had a cache layer and archive layer. At NetApp, we can take away the archive layer and simplify the environment into a single array. All of our solutions are already cloud enabled with built-in tools to move data on-premise to cloud hyperscalers. Also, leveraging information lifecycle management processes to move non-relevant data to a lower-cost storage tier can lower the cost of managing medical images.”
Without a doubt, “One of the best things a healthcare provider can do can do is stay current with their infrastructure and make sure the environment is up to date with the network.” Tony adds, “As the amount of data and medical images continues to surge, real problems start occurring if an infrastructure remains stagnant. With typical IT refresh cycles taking about 5-7 years, that only compounds the issue. My advice to all healthcare organizations is to simplify your environment as much as possible, and when and where you can, move unstructured data to the cloud. Imaging professionals are keeping an eye on technology advances and still waiting for the perfect solution for managing the pain of medical image management. NetApp already has data management tools that can help, with more on the way.”