100 years of data: Ensuring long-term preservation and access for patient records

Neil Stobart, vice president, global system engineering at Cloudian writes about the need for healthcare providers to be thinking about the long term when it comes to patient records.

It’s no secret that data is continuing to have a transformative impact on virtually all industries – and healthcare is certainly no exception to this trend.

The healthcare industry is currently in the midst of a digital data explosion, with the usage and reliance on data growing rapidly. This is being driven by a range of factors, in particular the rise of connected devices being used to collect patient data and provide improved diagnoses, specialist treatments and proactive care.

According to a 2018 report from market intelligence specialist IDC, the volume of data being collected is projected to increase faster in healthcare than in any other sector as advanced modes of medical care introduce new, larger file types. As such, IDC predicts that the ‘datasphere’ of the healthcare sector will experience a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 36% between 2018 and 2025, compared to 30% for manufacturing, 26% for financial services and 25% for media and entertainment.

With the collection, storage and management of data set to become even more central to the future of the industry, what issues are healthcare institutions likely to face and how can they ensure they are storing data in the most efficient way?

The long-term data challenge

It’s not just the volume of data that healthcare organisations will have to cater for over the coming years. There are a number of other data-related complications that will have to be taken into account.

For example, with people living longer than ever before and current UK legislation saying that medical data will need to be retained for ten years after the death of a patient, healthcare data being created today may need to be kept on file for almost 100 years.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, the rate of technological development means this data may also have to be migrated between formats multiple times over its lifespan. Data storage technology and organisational priorities will continue to evolve, while the data itself will typically come from various sources. These sources include, patient medical records in electronic health record (EHR) systems, or large amounts of unstructured content such as PET scans, MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays.

This disparate nature of data collection will add a huge amount of complexity when it comes to ensuring the data is effectively preserved and made accessible throughout its potentially long lifespan.

With all this in mind, medical organisations need to ensure that their data is stored in a way that provides the highest possible flexibility and portability, especially with data volumes becoming so vast that just migrating data from one format or provider to another can be a huge (and expensive) undertaking.

With a full exabyte of data potentially taking well over a year to migrate, organisations need to pre-empt these issues and ask themselves if their data is being stored in a way that takes its long-term future into consideration – both from a financial and an operational perspective.

Time for a storage check-up

It’s clear that in order to futureproof their infrastructures, modern healthcare organisations have a need for next-generation storage systems that can connect to various systems in a flexible, scalable and cost-effective manner.

One of the best ways of achieving this is through object storage. Modular object storage platforms provide the seamless scalability required in today’s data-driven world, enabling healthcare organisations to accommodate hundreds of petabytes of unstructured data by adding nodes whenever extra capacity is needed – all without disrupting processes or operations. Organisations can start small and grow across on-premises or private cloud infrastructure as required.

Object storage also has a key role to play in helping healthcare institutions manage their data over the long term through user-defined metadata tagging. Whereas traditional block storage has very limited metadata capabilities, object storage enables users to add rich metadata tags, making it much easier to organise, identify and retrieve data.

For example, a traditional X-ray file would likely have a limited amount of metadata associated with it, such as the creation date, owner, location and size. In comparison, an X-ray object could have a significantly wider range of tags tied to it, including the name of the patient, date of birth, injury details, etc. This adds structure around previously unstructured data, making it much easier for healthcare professionals to manage, search and share data in an efficient way.

Linked to this is accessibility, as multiple different stakeholders and teams will need access to the data over its lifespan. Object storage provides a central repository that consolidates storage, viewing and management of content to allow clinical staff to access patient data from anywhere at any time.

The final consideration is compatibility with the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) API. S3 compatible storage has quickly become the de facto standard for on-premises and private cloud deployments, offering significant cost savings and providing the low latency, high bandwidth performance now required. Deploying an S3-compatible object storage solution will therefore boost interoperability and futureproof organisations as storage technologies continue to develop.

Healthcare organisations have a huge amount to think about when it comes to data storage. As the volume of data continues to grow, selecting the right storage platform – one that ensures flexibility, scalability and portability – will put them in the best position to ensure that data is effectively preserved for the next 100 years and beyond.


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