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How Edge Computing Enhances Health IT Infrastructure

Embracing edge computing for health IT infrastructure can give IT staff more control and the ability to leverage data in near real-time.

Edge computing

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Healthcare organizations are adding more digital tools and trying to process growing amounts of data more quickly to meet enterprise demands.

Many organizations have looked to the cloud for the best solution for democratizing data access and moving data around more quickly. While the cloud offers a number of advantages in these areas, it may not be sufficient for collecting, storing, and analyzing the huge volume of data produced by connected medical devices and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Edge computing, also known as fog computing, is a promising strategy to help organizations distribute their network and data so information can be used and shared quickly and securely.

“Organizations that have embarked on a digital business journey have realized that a more decentralized approach is required to address digital business infrastructure requirements,” says Santhosh Rao, principal research analyst at Gartner. “As the volume and velocity of data increases, so too does the inefficiency of streaming all this information to a cloud or data center for processing.”

Edge computing can solve the inefficiency of moving all data to a centralized point by creating a network of smaller datacenters with dedicated purposes and features that are tailored to meet specific demands. Digital projects that create or require data can be processed much faster when the computing power is close to the device or person generating it.

READ MORE: Blockchain, Edge Decentralized Options for HIT Infrastructure

However, planning, building, deploying, and maintaining edge computing can be a challenge. Edge functions differently than a traditional datacenter, and represents a significant shift in how information is processed and delivered to end-users.

How does edge computing work, and how can healthcare organizations embrace this new concept in the clinical setting?

What is edge computing?

Traditional network architecture consists of a central datacenter and a ring of devices, systems, and tools that feed their data into this hub to be stored, processed, and returned to the user.

Internet of Things devices and other connected medical devices form the “edge” of this network, producing data and sending it into the centralized repository for processing.   

READ MORE: Collaborative Edge Computing Supports Health IT Advancement

But transmitting high volumes of data to a centralized location before it can be analyzed - and then sending it back to the device - is inefficient and may lead to bottlenecking.  Decentralizing the data transmission pathway can help to save time and bandwidth, delivering faster results to clinicians or patients.

Adding data centers to the edge can reduce transmission times and give clinicians and other healthcare staff the opportunity to process data close to where the data was produced.

The three main advantages of edge computing are increased security, easier access to live data, and transmission efficiency, according to a recent Business Insider report.  

Each edge data center handles less data, which can enhance security.  The volume of potentially vulnerable data in each location is lower, making it harder to cyber attackers to compromise significant assets or infect the entire network.

Security events can also be monitored close to the source so IT staff can react more quickly to security breaches. Collecting and analyzing security data on-premises can give IT staff the opportunity to assess threats in near real-time. Near real-time security information promotes a more proactive approach to data security.

READ MORE: How an Aging Population Will Revolutionize IoT and Edge Solutions

Data access can also be improved with edge computing because the data isn’t as far away from the source or the clinician accessing it.

For example, sharing data with a data center can be equated to delivering a physical letter. A person can deliver a letter to a neighbor much faster by carrying it to the neighbor’s house rather than putting the letter in a mailbox and waiting several days for the post office to process and deliver the message.

Data stored at the edge can also be accessed if the network is offline because it’s stored locally and doesn’t heavily depend on wireless networks. Wireless connections are often needed for cloud computing, but the closeness of edge data makes it more available offline.

This is especially useful in a healthcare setting because clinicians often depend on network connections for urgent access to patient information.

The closeness of the edge data center can reduce the cost of data transmission. Less data needs to be sent to the centralized cloud so organizations can lower their cloud storage requirements.

Healthcare uses for edge computing

Edge computing is becoming increasingly important for health IT infrastructure for local and remote patient monitoring and telemedicine, according to an article from the Journal of Diabetes and Scientific Technology.

“Edge computing is expected to be a key enabler of processes where a rapid response to sensor input is necessary, such as wireless health monitoring, virtual reality, and robotics,” said report authors. “As the amount of data generated by the IoT increases, the need for distributed computing based on fog computing and edge computing architectures will progressively increase.”

For example, implementing a closed-loop system in an ICU that uses smart sensors to monitor acutely ill patients can help clinicians respond to changes in condition immediately is a useful implementation of edge computing, according to the journal.

“Edge computing in an ICU can be achieved by connecting a system’s sensors to small, local control systems that handle processing, and communication,” explained the authors. “The result of edge computing can be rapid machine-to-machine communication or machine-to-human interaction. This paradigm takes localized processing farther away from the network right down to the sensor by pushing the computing processes even closer to the data sources.”

The sensor can act as a dispatcher that can send information to another edge device or to the cloud if need be. This allows each edge device to do its part in processing information instead of sending all its data to a centralized server.

Edge computing also helps deliver applications and services to remote areas by distributing workloads in branch data center locations. Bringing these services closer to patients, and implementing virtualization technology like hyperconvergence, can help remote patients communicate more effectively with providers.

The healthcare edge brings telemedicine capabilities closer to users. Doctors located in large metropolitan areas can reliably treat patients in remote or rural locations. Specialized care can be brought to the edge for telemedicine programs that patients would normally need to travel for,” says HITInfrastructure.com contributor Bill Kleyman.  

“The edge doesn’t have to be a massive data center or even a cloud instance,” Kleyman explained. “It can be something small that helps you bring data and healthcare applications closer to the end-user.”

Simple edge devices can greatly impact telemedicine through patient monitoring in a more basic way.

“A wearable health monitor is an example of a basic edge solution. It can locally analyze data like heart rate or sleep patterns and provide recommendations without a frequent need to connect to the cloud,” says Gartner’s Rao. “Edge computing has enormous potential to enable digital initiatives supported by IoT.”

How to approach the edge

Edge is a complement to cloud computing, not a replacement. Cloud has significant benefits to healthcare IT, but cloud alone is not always the best solution for offloading core applications.

To begin building an edge computing ecosystem, organizations need to define a use case that touches on an aspect of an organization including IT, patient care, and management.

Healthcare organizations should consider which of their healthcare functions can benefit from edge services, such as the delivery of EHR systems, digital imaging, X-rays, and support for telemedicine solutions.

Organizations should assess how fast the organization is growing, how supportive the network needs to be for remote users, and what connected devices will be added in the near or distant future.

Once these points are addressed, organizations can begin to identify vendors that might best suit their needs.

Connecting with vendors that can showcase a strong healthcare based edge computing background is critical to building a successful edge network. Many IT departments may not already have staff that can successfully architect and deploy an edge solution. Organizations that attempt to deploy an edge network without sufficient the expertise can end up wasting money. Initial edge network deployment can be costly and so are the mistakes associated with it.

“Edge is not like a typical data center. There are different considerations around space, density, power, management, connectivity, redundancy, and much more,” says Kleyman. “This is why working with the right people can make the entire process so much easier.”

Once the project is set in motion, organizations need to define. Edge computing approaches data access and storage differently than legacy solutions so organizations need to take the time to define data requirements and management policies. Deciding if the data is transient or being stored at the edge, what data is being processed, and what the connectivity control method around the data is needs to be defined and integrated into the edge solution, according to Kleyman.

Defining these elements and integrating them leads to adding and testing compliant security for the edge. Organizations should consider the location of the edge, the storage systems at the edge, how much data will me processed, and who will have access in order to build a compliant edge security system.

Once organizations clearly define what they want from edge computing and what they need to do to support it, they can take advantage of benefits that include:

  • Data proximity and efficiency
  • IoT data and health care provider system integration
  • Better and more informed data around patient health
  • Telemedicine
  • Patient monitoring that leverages medical devices such as insulin pumps, smart lenses and pacemakers
  • Wearables and connected apps that track various health metrics

Edge computing help improve patient care as well as increase efficiency from a business perspective. By spreading out the network, organizations can enhance productivity by concentrating resources on certain tasks and making health IT systems more efficient by decentralizing IT infrastructure.

“Edge computing can help you reduce transmission costs, improve delivery services, and impacts peoples’ lives,” said Kleyman. “Most of all, you make healthcare so much easier to consume by bringing it closer to the people that need it the most.”

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