Guest Column | June 19, 2019

Edge Computing And Healthcare: Looking To The Future

By Alan Conboy, Scale Computing

Healthcare IT News For VARs

There’s a lot of discussion within the healthcare sector about the adoption of edge computing. But behind all the hype and buzzwords is a very practical, accessible and deployable technology that has the potential to be a game changer for hospitals and clinics around the world.  

Edge Computing 101

Edge computing describes a physical computing infrastructure that is intentionally located outside of an organization’s central data center or cloud infrastructure—allowing applications, computing and storage resources to be placed where they are needed most and where the majority of data is collected. In the healthcare sector, data is being collected in a variety of facilities, such as individual hospitals, clinics or practices.

Positioned in this way, individual units can gather and process information from on-site medical applications, general administrative systems, and the growing number of healthcare-related IoT devices without having to send it over a wide area network (WAN) or virtual private network (VPN). They can, however, still connect to the wider network and transfer data if and when necessary.

The localized component that forms the heart of an edge computing environment increasingly has a hyperconverged infrastructure, which is the integration of the storage, compute, and virtualization layers of infrastructure into a single solution architecture. Think of it in terms of a high-performance bridge between local applications and either a centralized data center or increasingly, a cloud-based infrastructure.

Improving Efficiency And Responsiveness

An edge computing infrastructure improves network efficiency as it reduces the amount of data in motion. Each local network component has the ability to process some of the information it gathers. As such, edge computing reduces dependence on remote centralized servers or distributed local servers and means that hospitals, clinics and practices gain a more agile, responsive IT network. This is critical given the growing volume of patient data that needs to be processed and actioned.

Yet even in the face of growing data volumes experienced across the healthcare sector, edge computing will still deliver improvements in efficiency across the board. This includes faster appointment scheduling, quicker authorized access to medical records, rapid test result processing and, ultimately, a more timely diagnosis. With an edge computing infrastructure doctors, medical staff and administration teams do not have to wait for their data to be sent to a central repository for processing and then returned to their hospital for use and patient treatment.  

In instances where secondary or more complex data analysis or selected off-site backup is required, data stored on the localized infrastructure can be sent over the wider network to either a remote data center or a cloud repository. Network bandwidth is, therefore, used more effectively and latency is reduced significantly.

Using edge computing to develop an intelligent data management strategy that results in more selective data transfer policies also keeps a reign on the volume of data at rest in expensive centralized locations. Due to this, edge computing has the potential to save costs across an entire healthcare trust, which is a group of hospitals with a central off-site administration. Instead, investment and resources can be focused on other mission-critical areas such as medical staff, equipment and supplies.

Meeting Healthcare-Sector Challenges

The healthcare sector has many of the same IT-related challenges as other parts of the economy including limited budgets, relatively small IT departments, and a jumble of legacy computing systems that are difficult to maintain. But where many sectors figuratively say that data is the lifeblood of their business and that network downtime is a life or death situation, it’s literally true in the healthcare sector. Lives depend on a fast, efficient, and highly-available IT infrastructure.

But with few IT staff on-site it’s not always easy to keep on top of every system administration task and firefight an IT emergency. We’ve seen examples where there are four or five IT staff charged with managing 500+ machines within a hospital, so this is a real-life issue. It’s good to know, therefore, that the localized components of an edge computing infrastructure can be configured and managed remotely—perhaps at a trust’s headquarters or central data repository.

This has the benefit of freeing IT staff at each site from some of the more time-consuming day-to-day tasks and helping them cope better with IT emergencies, should they arise. Some edge computing systems also offer in-built, automated disaster recovery capabilities and self-healing machine intelligence to further reduce the burden of over-stretched IT teams.

Using an edge computing infrastructure also can deliver centralized, automated security policies to each location and ensure unified HIPAA compliance across multiple locations within an organization. Keeping data local also means that on-site security can be improved. Potential data breaches can be detected before they can cause harm, and passwords and authentication systems can be managed on-site. In addition, security cameras that monitor patient health on wards or provide added security to medical staff in higher risk environments can be quickly accessed, downloaded and analyzed, should it be necessary.

Looking To The Future

Edge computing could soon open up healthcare to more remote areas of the country thanks to its ability to run many key functions without connection to a remote data center. Its localized processing power will continue to receive a significant boost as more healthcare-related IoT devices that can gather and process information are delivered to market.

In the US, edge computing deployment could extend the reach and availability of cancer screening centers and ‘pop-up’ clinics. It also will give doctors and healthcare professionals access to more immediate and actionable patient monitoring using IoT connectivity within cardiac pacemakers, defibrillators and even sensors in insulin pumps.

In addition, edge computing in combination with intelligent IoT devices will be able to gather on-patient data, send it their local clinic or surgery and give almost real-time information to medical staff. Patient data could, potentially, be reviewed even if the patient is not present and has not made an appointment.

This will help deal more proactively and efficiently with ongoing, long-term conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. It could also help with more general care for the elderly and for those with dementia. Further into the future, edge computing could help hospitals and healthcare trusts run a network of telemedicine booths that provide online, onscreen, real-time access to doctors and healthcare professionals. Patients might be able to ‘see’ a doctor at their local mall.

This future does sound good and, in many respects, edge computing means this future is much closer than you might think. In the face of growing data volumes experienced across the healthcare sector, edge computing will still deliver improvements in efficiency, meeting specific healthcare challenges and scaling for the future.

About The Author

Alan Conboy is the Office of the CTO at Scale Computing since 2009. With more than 20 years of experience, Conboy is an industry veteran and technology evangelist specializing in designing, prototyping, selling and implementing disruptive storage and virtualization technologies. Prior to Scale Computing, Conboy held positions at Lefthand Networks, ADIC, CreekPath Systems, Sun Microsystems and Spectra Logic. Conboy is notably one of the first movers in the X86/X64 hyperconvergence space, and one of the first 30 people ever certified by SNIA.