The debate rages on about the viability of the cloud for the healthcare industry, mainly weighing security risks against the benefits of lower costs and improved outcomes. Private, closed systems can be Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant and meet Stage 2 Meaningful Use requirements to allow at least half of patients to access their own medical records electronically. However, these closed systems, unlike the cloud, fall short of enabling more far-reaching benefits for patients, such as a more connected, collaborative and efficient healthcare system throughout the U.S.

Patients say: give me access

If you’ve ever personally dealt with a health issue requiring referrals to specialists at different healthcare organizations, you know first-hand how frustrated patients get shuttling medical records and images back and forth, requesting copies to make sure records are accurate or not knowing if doctors are reading each other’s notes. This frustration may be why — despite the fact that many patients have concerns about security of their health data in the cloud — nearly all patients (90%) want the ability to access their health information online, according to a 2012 study by Accenture. And, when patients get online access, 80% of them use it, according to a 2012 study conducted by Harris Interactive for the National Partnership for Women & Families. This study also reveals patients believe electronic health records (EHRs) help doctors and staff correct errors or fill in incomplete information, as well as avoid medical errors in the first place.

We’ve all heard the medical error horror stories: the wrong kidney is removed; the patient is never told he had a small heart attack and now has advanced heart disease; a risky procedure needs to be re-performed because results aren’t accessible to the specialist. I could go on. These situations can be the result of poor communication and a lack of access by patients and doctors to medical images and medical records from consulting facilities.

From a patient’s perspective, I think the most important benefit of the cloud is transparency and availability of medical information — for improved collaboration and communication between healthcare professionals, of course, but also for ensuring access to patients’ images and medical records so they and their caregivers can be informed advocates for their own health.

Make access easy and convenient, please

Obviously, not all patients are insisting on access to their medical images and records through an online portal — but I think some of this may have to do with a lack of information. (The Accenture study states that 46% of patients don’t even know if their records are available electronically.) This may also be due to the perceived level of effort it might take, especially if a patient doesn’t have easy access to a computer. That’s why using mobile technology to access online patient portals in the cloud is so exciting. Studies show that when a mobile app is introduced, it engages patients. For example, a year and a half after releasing its first mobile app, Kaiser Permanente is seeing 22% of portal traffic come through mobile devices.

The cloud is gaining traction

Despite its slow start, I believe the tide is finally turning. Implementation of electronic medical records (EMRs) by hospitals and health systems is rapidly accelerating, and corresponding physician adoption is growing fast. Two recently released data briefs from The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) reported a 72% rate of physician adoption of EMRs in 2012. The report also noted that 59% of physicians are already accessing imaging within the EMR.

These are the first concrete steps to providing more patients and their providers with access to important health information — making it electronic in the first place. Further, the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) is expanding the RSNA Image Share network, a cloud-based system that allows patients direct access to their medical images. There currently are five major healthcare systems involved — the Mayo Clinic, The Mount Sinai Medical Center, the University of California San Francisco, the University of Chicago Medical Center and the University of Maryland Medical Center — and over 20 more organizations plan to join or are in the process of doing so.

With HIPAA requirements and other changing regulations, I think healthcare organizations are realizing that information technology and data security are not what they do best — and that working with a trusted technology partner can free them to focus on what they do do best: providing care to patients.

Do you think this shifting mindset will help speed the implementation of cloud technology and patient portals? Do you look forward to a day when you can access your own health-related data sooner?