shutterstock_122755672Aesthetic doctors and their practice managers are increasingly exploring the benefits of moving their office workflows and clinical data into the proverbial “cloud,” but what is this cloud anyway?

Cloud is a catch-all term for a virtual world of remote servers that house privately held data. “Cloud computing” refers to the sharing of resources, software, information, and other data. In a nutshell, a cloud service exists off-site and is managed and maintained by the service provider. For example, Apple’s iCloud or Google’s GoogleDocs applications provide remote hardware storage of documents and other media, with a front-end browser to help you access them.

A cloud system can be a public cloud, a private cloud, or a virtual private cloud, among other models. A private cloud is operated solely for an individual organization. It is typically expensive to maintain with a large upfront investment. A private cloud is somewhat similar to the centralized server in many physicians’ offices. The main difference is that software and storage capacity are handled by the cloud server, not an individual machine.

Silver Linings

One of the main reasons that doctors are looking to the cloud is as a potential silo for their electronic medical records (EMR) system.

A public cloud is not suitable for EMR systems and private clouds can be prohibitively expensive, but “virtual” cloud approaches may be an option. A virtual private cloud system provides service solely for an organization. It is typically located within a larger cloud infrastructure, providing higher levels of security than a public cloud with a lower cost structure than a private cloud.

There are many benefits to cloud-based EMR systems. For one, it’s easier to link different applications that all traverse the Internet than to install multiple “shrink-wrapped” software programs on a workstation in the office.

A cloud-based EMR system also gives physicians the freedom to access patient data virtually whenever and wherever they want, alleviating the limitation of being tethered to an on-site server. There are also minimal upfront hardware costs and installation fees. In addition, upgrades and enhancements are done on the cloud, making this often time-consuming task easier to manage. Moreover, little additional information technology support is needed for cloud-based EMR systems.

Overcast Sky

The main downside is fear of data breaches. Most vendors understand that information in the EMR system be übersecure and encrypted. While most cloud-based systems store their data on massively scaled, redundant, and hyper-secure systems—the same type that is also used by major financial institutions—it is, of course, important to ask an EMR vendor to describe its security and backup apparatus so that you feel confident that your data is safely maintained and protected.

EMR systems aside, there are other reasons to consider the cloud. Today, people are accustomed to instantaneous access to images, texting and email, location-based services, and other resources on a multitude of devices. Healthcare software will inevitably need to share some features with these social platforms to keep pace. Newer tools for physician-to-physician or patient-to-physician communication via portals and HIPAA-secure apps are opening up new lines of engagement. For example, such tools can be used to remarket fillers and Botox to recurring patients, reduce office overhead associated with checking and returning voicemails, or minimize the need for a large waiting room by moving patient intake online.

On the whole, the fog of cloud computing seems to be lifting, and more physicians and office managers are seeing a blue sky of opportunity.

Tim A. Sayed, MD, MBA, FACS, is the medical director for EMA Plastic Surgery and EMA Cosmetic Surgery at Modernizing Medicine. He is also a plastic surgeon in private practice in Broward County and Palm Beach, Florida. He can be reached via [email protected].