What I Learned about Data Storage in Healthcare

After attending the recent Connected Health Conference in Boston—a three-day event that brought together leading providers, researchers, and technology developers to share insights into the future of health and wellness—it became abundantly clear that we’ve only scratched the surface into the overwhelming demand for cloud storage in healthcare.

At the current pace, most hospitals are already stretching storage capacity to the maximum within their own data centers. And few have the budget or physical space to bring on additional servers. That’s where cloud storage provides much-needed relief. In speaking with customers as well as attendees at the event, it won’t be long—maybe another 5 to 10 years—before all healthcare data will be kept in the cloud.

Like other industries, healthcare’s main driver to the cloud is high-resolution video and imaging. There are three reasons that medical imaging has become such a hot-button issue for healthcare organizations:

1. Lives depend on it. First and foremost, imaging has become a much more critical part of quality care.  Everything from dental x-rays to computer-assisted robotic surgery depends on imaging.

2. File sizes are huge. Increased resolution of images and the transition from still images to video and 3D renderings have increased the rate of data production 1000-fold for many procedures.

3. Mandates to archive. Stringent healthcare regulations require that data be stored, in many cases, for the life of the patient. Because of the expense associated with data storage, many healthcare institutions are non-compliant.

Accelerating Image Quality for Improved Patient Care

About 740 million imaging procedures were performed last year by healthcare providers in the U.S., including CT scans, x-rays, videos of endoscopic procedures, ultrasounds, and MRIs. And like the cameras in your phones that have gone from 1 megapixel to 12 megapixels in just a few years, medical imaging equipment has advanced to produce ever-higher resolutions and gray-scale depth—all in an effort to provide greater detail and insight to improve patient care.

3D CT scan showing rib cage and internal organs.

Consider this: a ten-year-old x-ray machine produces an image that is 512x512x8, or about 262MB; today’s 3D CT scans create images that are more than 100,000 times that size. And while this type of equipment may have been used at only the most renowned hospitals a few years ago, it is now commonplace for doctors everywhere to rely on 3D imaging to treat their own patients.

Such imagery is used live during image-guided surgical procedures. Ultrasounds, which used to be low-res images, are now saved as movies to show heartbeats and other live-action views of the baby in the womb. Every second is comprised of 30 individual pictures, and resolution is increasing with every new generation of hardware.

Hidden Benefit: Storing Files Helps Find Cures

What complicates data storage for healthcare is the regulatory requirement to keep images as part of the patient’s medical history. While this can be a burden to hospital IT teams, epidemiologists and researchers find that access to archived files can be a boon to scientific discovery. Just as in other industries where data mining has produced valuable insights, having a trove of medical images to analyze has resulted in medical breakthroughs and cures.

For example, to evaluate the outcomes of various surgical procedures, researchers can look back at images from a number of patients to uncover what works and what doesn’t work. Or in the case of cancer, doctors can review image files from many years back to see if there were clues of developing cancer that may have been overlooked, thereby improving the chances of early diagnosis in other patients.

Genomic Testing Puts Cloud Storage Front and Center

In a similar vein, genomic testing produces an enormous amount of data, and it doubles every 7 to 8 months as gene sequencing machines become cheaper and faster. In 2008, the cost to sequence a human genome was about $10 million. Today anyone can have his or her DNA sequenced for under $1,000. Hardware manufacturers predict that the cost will drop to $100 by 2020. In another 10 or 20 years, genomic analysis will be as common as taking your blood pressure.

Portion of a human genome. The complete genome is about 3 billion letters long.

From a data perspective, every human genome sequenced produces roughly 200 gigabytes of data. If everyone in the U.S had their DNA sequenced—you can do the math—the amount of data generated would be 200 x 320,000,000 = 64,000,000,000 GBs or 64 Exabytes. For comparison, it’s estimated that Google (the world’s largest repository of data) has between 10-15 Exabytes.

So, what will all this genomic sequencing cost to store? If we look at Amazon’s S3 cloud solution, the price to store 200 GBs of genome data is $.023 (per GB/month) x 200 = $55.20 per year. That’s not too bad if the genomic sequence costs $1,000. But if genomic sequencing goes down to $100 in the next two years as expected, the price of data storage will exceed the cost of sequencing. Now consider that this data will need to be kept anywhere from 20 to 50 years—for the life of the patient—and storage costs will dwarf the cost of creating the data. That’s why the race is on to find less expensive storage solutions.

Affordable, Reliable Cloud Storage for What Ails You

Something has to give or hospitals will go bankrupt trying to store all of their patient imaging files—whether it’s on-premises or in the cloud. (Incidentally, the cost of traditional on-premises storage, using standard servers from companies like Dell EMC and NetApp, is to be even more than Amazon, roughly 3 cents per GB per month vs. 2.3 cents for S3.)

That’s where the Cloud Storage 2.0 revolution comes into play. Wasabi’s vision is that cloud storage should be a utility, like electricity or bandwidth. Low cost, predictable and scalable. Wasabi has dramatically cut the cost of cloud storage by more than 80%. At 200 GB per human genome, that means it would only cost about $9 a year to store each genome with Wasabi (vs. $55 with Amazon S3). In addition, for cloud storage to be a truly viable and flexible solution, it needs to be open and standards-based to work with other cloud platforms. Nobody wants to be locked into a particular vendor. Wasabi is already 100% compatible with Amazon S3 as the S3 API is quickly becoming the de facto standard.

Take Cloud Storage 2.0—and Call Us in the Morning

It’s the solution providers that come up with faster, cheaper, interoperable ways to store data in the cloud that will win the battle—and not just in healthcare, but across all industries challenged with escalating storage costs.

Hospitals, manufacturers of medical imaging equipment, laboratories doing genomic research, and manufacturers of genomic sequencing equipment should all be looking to Cloud Storage 2.0 vendors as the logical place to store their imaging. Let people who are in the business of data storage worry about doubling capacity every 7 or 8 months. Data storage is not—nor should it be—a necessary core competency for a healthcare organization. Finding cures, saving lives and improving the wellness of others should remain their focus.

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