Smaller practices find cost savings in the cloud

For independent physician practices, cloud computing brings its own set of opportunities and, of course, challenges.

Adoption, particularly in relation to EHR and practice management system implementations, can deliver hard cost savings and productivity improvements. At the same time, small practices should consider a "business class" offering to ensure stability if they intend to head to the cloud.

PhysBizTech Editor Frank Irving spoke with Jon Karl, sales director at CDW Healthcare, for more insight on cloud computing at the small-practice level.  The transcript of that conversation follows.

Q: From your research — or the experience of your company in serving healthcare customers — what have you been able to determine about the extent of cloud computing utilization at small physician practices?

A: Based on our survey of 200 physician group practices, 38 percent of all respondents (and 33 percent of offices with three doctors or fewer) indicate that they are considering a cloud computing EHR model. For these practices, hard costs could be cut by $4,400 per physician.

Beyond a hosted EMR solution (hosted either by an independent software vendor or system affiliate), we are also seeing a broader adoption – in all forms of practices – of the most commonly used productivity applications, such as email (e.g., Microsoft Office 365).  Specialty practices, such as cardiology or radiology groups, are using the cloud for image storage/access, which not only helps drive out costs, but improves productivity through access and collaboration utilization.

Q: Could you identify a few types of cloud applications that are in use — or would be a good fit — for small practices?

A: The first solution to evaluate is your electronic medical record (EMR)/electronic health record (EHR) and practice management (PM) solution. Those who have already migrated to the EMR/EHR platform should consider leveraging cloud-based solutions for backup and recovery as well as future migration to offset the need to invest further in internal computing infrastructure. Practices that are still evaluating must make sure they have discussed a hosted option, and that they understand the EMR vendor’s vision of a hosted solution in the future – this enables you to optimize your technology investment.

Beyond the EMR, all practices should weigh the cost benefit of moving the rest of their non-clinical applications and their data storage into a hosted model. Hosts often provide support for your IT infrastructure, which reduces costs associated with having to hire/retain an IT staff member.  IT investments can focus on end-user devices (laptops, desktops, and tablets) and the basic network and security infrastructure necessary to access your host. Any practice can find email and productivity applications – like spreadsheets, word processing, and presentation tools – in secure, cloud based environments from industry-leading organizations.

Q: What are the primary benefits to the small practice of using cloud-based technology?

A: Key cloud benefits include the ability to reduce costs and improve productivity, followed by a resulting improvement in patient satisfaction due to improved workflow and processes. Costs are reduced both through the reduction of IT support necessary in the environment and in reduced downtime and outages tied to system issues. Cloud computing can also help your practice prevent secondary costs associated with data loss and security risks because the cloud model relies more on the security and stability of the enterprise host.

Cloud computing also results in productivity improvements because of reduced system downtime and the ability to access hosted applications and data regardless of location.  Leveraging the ability to access a host through a mobile network connection while outside of the practice (while inside a hospital, for example) drives greater productivity, greater collaboration and, ultimately, greater patient satisfaction.

Q: What about potential drawbacks?

A: While high-speed Internet access is accessible to many, it is still not available to all, or stable enough in all mobile settings that everyone can rely on a hosted model.  It is important for small practices to evaluate and understand their access to reliable, high-speed Internet. Typically, a “business class” offering is necessary for any practice using a hosted cloud model, because a lack of bandwidth and common network outages can slow down workflows and negatively affect patient satisfaction.

Q: In your view, what is the outlook for the future of cloud computing at the small-practice level?

A: As the volume of healthcare mergers and acquisitions continues to drive market aggregation, the drive to consolidate and share applications and data will likely follow that trend.  Small practices should take advantage of applications hosted by affiliate systems that offer a variety of solutions, from EMR/PM to patient portals and practice analytics for meaningful use. Typically, these cloud offerings are much lower in cost when compared to investing on your own, in-house solutions.

[Editor's note: For more detailed information on cloud computing, click here to access Healthcare IT News' 60-page e-Supplement titled "Navigating the Cloud."]