Management consultant, Peter Drucker, famously once said; 'If you can't measure something, you can't manage it'. The recent WannaCry ransomware attack that caused major disruption to the NHS illustrates just how much this government organisation now relies upon IT. On a slightly different note – the healthcare sector is widely predicted to be the first billion pound plus Big Data (and related IoT) industry on the planet. If anyone was in any doubt as to how important data centres and IT are to hospitals, GPs, the related insurance industry and all manner of private organisations offering products and services in the health sector, then these two illustrations tell you everything you need to know.
In the first case, the efficient, optimised running of such a complex organisation as the NHS, with limited human and financial resources, is critical to ensure that patients receive the best possible, timely care, wherever and whenever that might be.
As for Big Data and IoT, well this represents the potential future of the healthcare sector – for better and for worse! Whether we all need and/or want to be permanently monitored by our GP, our health and life insurers, our employers and any other ‘interested’ organisations – to check that we’re staying healthy – remains to be seen. We already hear the stories of folks going for job interviews and being confronted with evidence from Facebook of various kinds of behaviour about which a prospective employer has doubts – always assuming that the evidence hasn’t stalled the job application up front! So, the idea that your employer can see that you spent all Saturday in the pub, followed by the curry house, might not sound that attractive!
Conversely, if your GP can monitor your health condition regularly, safely and remotely, following some major surgery, then it would seem a win/win/win for doctor, NHS and the patient.
Just how data centres and IT might underpin the various healthcare possibilities is a debate to be had elsewhere. What’s not in question is that data centres and the IT infrastructure and applications that live inside them are becoming more and more critical as digitalisation becomes the norm, and no longer the exception, in the health sector.
First up, the day to day running of the NHS IT function is, as we’ve seen recently, vital. With budgets tight, can individual trusts afford to own, operate and manage their own data centre and IT infrastructures? Could the software updates that might have prevented the recent ransomware attack at certain health trusts been afforded if some, or all, of the underlying hardware infrastructure was being looked after by a colo, third party, at a much reduced annual cost?
Looking ahead, and if the healthcare sector is to take advantage of the massive potential of Big Data and IoT, then it will need access to agile and flexible IT resources. Want to run the numbers on males aged between 40-50, all of whom have office jobs, none of whom exercise regularly, but all of whom seem to stay fit and healthy – is there a missing genetic or lifestyle factor underlying this statistic? ‘Please, Mr/Mrs NHS IT manager, can you provide me with an IT resource capable of supporting ten Petabyes of data to run some database queries over the next few days?’ The likely response? We don’t have the budget/resource/time to do this high performance computing (HPC) for you. Ask a colo the same question, and the answer is more likely to be: ‘When can you start running the data?’ (apologies to the medical profession for the fairly unimaginative example!).
Move away from the NHS, and the power of data will be underpinning new businesses in the healthcare sector and helping existing businesses to expand. Already, the idea of telehealth is gaining wider and wider acceptance – why bring everyone to a central location when, in many cases, patient and healthcare professional can communicate remotely? And then there are all the devices that monitor our lifestyles and help us to manage our lives better – but also help organisations who have a ‘vested’ interest in us – insurers, employers, government and the like. All the data they produce has to live somewhere, and then has to be processed. As with the HPC example above, chances are that a colo can provide the companies running these innovative health applications with flexible and agile data centre/IT infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of the capital required to purchase and operate such infrastructure in-house.
So, the colo (and managed services) folks can likely help not just improve the efficiency of existing healthcare sector IT real estate, but also help provide the infrastructure required to underpin new and/or previously unaffordable applications. The ‘what ifs?’ or ‘why don’t we try this?’ as well as the ‘can’t believe no one has done this befores’.
Long term, let’s hope that IT becomes a healthcare enabler and not inhibitor. Even today, some medical appointments and diagnoses are held up because the x-ray films have to be sent from hospital A to hospital B, when they could be just a couple of mouse clicks away. The older generation might consider the postal delay acceptable, but for the millennials who expect instant results whenever and however they use technology, a couple of days extra seems comical and, increasingly, inexcusable.