Put your pharmacy in the “clouds”

By | June 10, 2009

We’ve all heard the term “cloud computing”, but I think very few people have taken the time to discover what the term actually means. “Cloud Computing” is certainly a buzz-word and can be found all over the internet. Unfortunately, the definition appears to be whatever marketing needs it to be for the sake of advertising.

In the most basic terms, cloud computing refers to services provided over the internet. These services may include software-as-a-service (Saas), applications online that are accessed from a web browser, such as Google Docs and Adobe Buzzword where the software and data are stored somewhere other than your machine, and hardware services like Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) which provide on demand, sizable storage solutions.

Key benefits to cloud computing are obvious and include access to applications and data anywhere, anytime and instant scalability based on demand. If you don’t think access to information is important, then ask yourself why laptops and mobile phones are so popular. We all want access to our information and we all want it now.

Cost containment is also an important to consider over time as upgrades to hardware and software would become a thing of the past in a cloud computing model. Think of the advantage of always having access to the latest version of your pharmacy platform, or being able to access important patient information from any location or from any device regardless of platform. Cross platform development would not be necessary if my understanding of the “cloud” as being operating system neutral is accurate. Google doesn’t seem to mind whether you use Linux or Windows to access their wonderful applications (Google Docs, Google Scholar, Picasa, etc).  What about expansion? Remember, this model is scalable on demand based on need and is a key component of cloud computing.

Utilization of cloud computing for healthcare could also go a long way in eliminating issues with integration. Many hospital systems are made up of different applications designed to function in a particularly limited environment (i.e. Pharmacy, Nursing, Radiology, ED, etc). This approach is often referred to as the “best of” approach and creates many difficulties for complete integration throughout the facility. There are entire departments within a healthcare system dedicated to making these “best of” applications speak to each other. Interface development is a constant battle as information is pushed and pulled from one system to another. A cloud computing model eliminates the need for interfaces as all the information is stored in a centralized location (i.e. “the cloud”). Data generated by pharmacy is easily viewable by nursing or physicians without the need for another new interface. The information is simply viewed via a web based browser. The system no longer has to move data packets from one location to another. What a wonderful world that would be.

The cloud computing model is ideally suited as a solution for the current dilemma of a universally acceptable Electronic Health Record (HER). Data generated in one location is easily accessible from anywhere, making data available to outside sources when necessary for patient care. I am of course referring to access to these records in emergencies for hospitalization or by pharmacies on the other side of the world attempting to fill a prescription for a vacationing patron.

Of course, not everything about cloud computing is sunshine and roses. Downsides to cloud computing include reliability, performance and security. Even one hour of downtime can be disastrous to a pharmacy, and performance is always important as even the slightest slowdown can affect patient care. Having immediate access to information is directly tied to performance. Anyone that has ever had a slow internet connection can relate. Security is a central concern as the cloud would house millions of sensitive data packets floating around in space. However, as technology improves so does reliability, performance, and security. These three things are not new to IT departments and are issues regardless of location.

I see the future in pharmacy and the future is some form of cloud computing. Only time will tell if that model exists now or has yet to be developed. I look forward to developing theses systems as I think we can all benefit from them. Good luck.

9 thoughts on “Put your pharmacy in the “clouds”

  1. Macy

    I can see the many advantages of cloud computing as being advanced, with easy and fast access on information needed by the patient and pharmacist alike. Intermittent internet connection can be a frequent problem, but what bothers me most is the possible disclosure of sensitive data to and or by the wrong persons. If this advancement would materialize, information security must be given utmost importance.

  2. Jerry Fahrni Post author

    Hi Macy – Security is clearly going to be an issue as cloud computing is developed and implemented. I agree that it should definitely be a top priority. However, sensitive data currently exists over “the net” in many forms including financial and personal information. Healthcare could take a lesson from financial institutions in that area. Everyone knows where they want to go, but no one is willing to invest the time and resources in making the trip. I’m convinced that cloud computing would be a good move for healthcare, but as you point out there are still issues that need to be resolved. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Maeghan

    Hi Jerry, We at Pharmacy OneSource agree! All 8 of our pharmacy applications are software-as-a-service “in the cloud”. Pharmacy managers love that they can log on and see the status of their 797-compliant cleanroom or work on the pharmacists’ schedule anywhere, even from home.

  4. Jerry Fahrni Post author

    That’s what I’m talking about! The ability to access information anytime, anyplace is the only way to fly. My only wish is that more vendors would begin adopting this technology. I’ve had the opportunity to use some of the products offered by Pharmacy OneSource and I think you guys do a great job. I’ll be in Chicago for the ASHP Summer Meeting. Booth #817 is definitely on my list of places to visit. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Carl H

    I have always been a strong proponent of centralized application solutions having worked most of my career for large retail pharmacy companies using de-centralized pharmacy systems. In a distributed de-centralized environment you have an application, database and expensive server in each pharmacy to purchase and maintain. So the costs and support required were much greater compared to a networked, centralized or cloud computing solution. From pharmacy to pharmacy you might have different hardware models, operating system versions, software versions, and variations in pricing, third-party plans, drug files creating a support nightmare. Additionally, each pharmacy required an O/S license and software licenses(s) and software maintenance agreements. I always felt that it was my duty to the company to push our vendors towards technologies that were more efficient and therefore reduce our expenses. So, In 1995, my goal was to advocate a thin client solution, having centralized application services and database to our software vendor (Condor). What I found out is that our vendor was very open to the idea and assigned resources to deliver a solution. Furthermore, I learned that you always ask for more than you expect to receive and you will be less disappointed with end product.
    Back in 1995, the infrastructure and technology to support a pharmacy management network solution was not in place yet. This was before internet browsers, the Internet and high speed networks were commonplace. In 1995 only 9% of Americans were online using the Internet. The concept was great but the technology to support the concept was not, however 3 years later we had our solution. Although it wasn’t as cutting edge as requested it was a very innovative and helped reduce our expenses.
    Today, we have the technology but most pharmacy software vendors do not want to give up any control they have using proprietary systems. What it will take is an Industry push so that open source applications are developed using a conforming technology. Over the last couple of years I have seen development platforms converging, consolidation of high-tech companies and a higher usage of standards providing the infrastructure for future applications to be “Cloud” ready. However, the acceptance and utilization of such technologies from your software vendor or IT departments requires the users and business leaders to become more involved and actively track the development path of the software used.

  6. Jerry Fahrni Post author

    Hi Carl – I love the idea of a “cloud” computing environment for all the reasons you mentioned (hardware, software, support, etc). Unfortunately people look at me like I’m asking for a human sacrifice when I mention the idea. Somehow the concept of not having the software installed on the hospital servers frightens them. Our IT department struggles to support the hardware and various software products we use on a day-to-day basis. I would welcome the opportunity to turn this over to someone with a better track record and the willingness to provide the necessary support (at a cost of course). The idea of “upgrades” to any of our major patient care systems makes me cringe. It’s never smooth and there always seems to be hardware issues along the way. Having a singular software source placed on a singular hardware source is very appealing. Upgrades to both would, in theory, become a non-issue to the end user. I have to believe that there is a healthcare facility out there somewhere willing to take the lead and develop this model. Unfortunately I haven’t found one yet. Drop by anytime. I appreciate you insightful comment.

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