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Mercy Centralizes Health IT Infrastructure with Virtual Servers

Mercy Hospital St.Louis uses virtual servers to centralize their EHR data for its 43 locations.

Source: Thinkstock

- As hospitals continue to digitize their health IT infrastructures, virtualization becomes a more viable option for large-scale technology deployments.

Missouri-based Mercy uses virtualization across its 43-hospital network to better connect health IT systems and offer clinicians better, more efficient technology.

Mercy Vice President of Enterprise Infrastructure Scott Richert told HITInfrastructure.com that Mercy uses server virtualization which has positively impacted its centralized electronic health record (EHR) system.

“Several years ago Mercy committed to a centralized EHR system that all of our hospitals and physicians would share,” said Richert. “That drove us to stand up some centralized infrastructure and to actually build the new data center that we equipped with servers that were all VMware based. I's a completely virtualized data center.”

By implementing a fully virtualized data center, Mercy is able to consolidate its IT organization efforts, making its infrastructure solutions highly available.

Mercy’s goal was to centralize its IT infrastructure so each location no longer had to host data on-site.

“Prior to building our new datacenter, a lot of our hospitals had computer rooms in their basements,” Richert explained. “They all had their own mini data centers. As we consolidated to the central EHR, much of the need for some of those systems went away, but any applications that were still needed we migrated those to the central datacenter, to our VMWare farm there.”

Mercy evaluated its VMware platform for a year before it was fully implemented. The hospital faced challenges validating that all of the hospital applications would be supported on the new virtual environment.

“In the early days of our migration, we'd create some of our own applications, but most of the applications we used are purchased from software vendors,” stated Richert. “Most of those software vendors would not outright say that they would support their product on virtualized environments.”

Mercy had to plan the migration of its workloads carefully so they could be moved back if there were any compatibility issues or performance penalties with the virtual environment. According to Richert, 99 percent of the hospital’s applications moved over to the virtual VMware environment smoothly.

Richert added that Mercy was able to build an almost entirely new environment by using migration tools.

“The timing worked out well,” said Richert. “We were basically working in kind of virgin territory. We could put new servers up in the data center and migrate the entire workload to it. It was just in time to support our new EHR deployment that went in shortly after that.”

The virtual environment helped Mercy build a more reliable and predictable health IT infrastructure environment. This reliable environment helps the hospital remain HIPAA-compliant with its virtual environment.

“A lot of our HIPAA-compliance and our healthcare-class security and privacy are backed up by audits and some frameworks that we follow,” noted Richert. “VMware fit very well into that framework, and we really didn't have any challenges delivering this product in a HIPAA-compliant environment.”

Virtual servers have allowed Mercy to be more flexible, scalable, and reliable while controlling costs.

“We've grown to over 8,000 virtual machine servers in our datacenter,” Richert explained. “That's probably double the size we were just five or six years ago.  My staff has grown slightly, but not by the kind of scale you would expect.”

“It's a very cost-effective way for us to manage our environment,” he continued. “It creates better value for Mercy because a broken server or a broken piece of equipment doesn't take anybody down because VMWare is resilient. It moves workloads off to different equipment as needed and the way it auto load balances.

We’ve created a reliable, predictable environment that we're able to manage very well. That's the biggest benefit the virtual machine world has given to us. When we want to do upgrades, we just move workloads without taking any systems down. And we free up hardware, we swap it out, and then we move workloads back onto it.”

Due to the success of its virtual servers, Mercy is currently expanding partnerships with other healthcare organizations. Mercy is now a service provider and provides software-defined tools to other healthcare organizations outside of its own locations.

The virtualization tools have allowed us to take advantage of some of the software-defined data center tools to create multiple tenets within our data center,” said Richert. “We have multiple hospitals that we can service, and we can keep them all separate from a security perspective.”

“I can have the same team managing them, but create multiple virtual data centers within our single physical data center,” he added. “So it's really opened up a whole new business model for us as well as allowed us to transition into a multi-tenet service provider and has opened up new revenue opportunities for us as we sell the services to other department hospitals.”

Centralizing its health IT infrastructure using virtualization has given Mercy the opportunity to significantly improve operations across all of its 43 locations. Smoother operations allow clinicians better access to the data and applications they need to better care for patients.