Market Trends

Edge Computing and the Future of Healthcare

Nov 17, 202110 min read

Written by Rachel Kempf (Editor-in-Chief)

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Healthcare today is in the midst of a digital transformation, with remote healthcare, online patient portals, and wearable IoT devices that enable remote patient monitoring transforming the industry. In recent years, many health companies have moved to the cloud to enable more scalability and better availability. But is the cloud capable of delivering all that’s needed for the future of healthcare?

In an industry where seconds can determine life or death, cloud providers, who process requests in centralized data centers located far away from end users, cannot deliver on the real-time monitoring, low latency, resource efficiency, and localized compliance required for healthcare’s digital transformation. This blog post will review how the healthcare industry is changing, the challenges of implementing those changes, and how edge computing and Azion’s Edge Platform can provide next-generation healthcare necessities like localized compliance, fast and efficient data transfer, and real-time monitoring.

Healthcare’s Digital Transformation

Although revolutionary new developments in healthcare are taking many forms, the end goal for many of these use cases is the same: improving the quality of healthcare wherever patients are. Four trends illustrate how digital transformation is enabling this trend: self-service online portals, remote and mobile care, health IoT, and improving diagnoses through data analysis.

Hosting Patient Records Online

While one might view easy online access to health records as more a matter of convenience than necessity, the two often go hand in hand. Quick and easy access to information like hospital records and test results makes it easier for patients and providers to share fast and accurate information, expediting care and enabling providers to see more patients. This benefit is especially important for hospitals that are short on staff or overwhelmed with patients, as was often the case during the worst periods of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, online care portals also enabled patients to check-in online, schedule visits, and see doctors through video conference, which reduced the time patients needed to spend in close proximity with each other, lowering the risk of virus transmission.

Remote and Mobile Care

While telehealth and online care portals make it easier for patients and providers to communicate from their homes, outfitting ambulances, pharmacies, and other non-traditional locations with Internet connectivity provide a way to bring life-saving care to rural patients and others who live far away from hospitals and health clinics. As HealthTech Magazine explains, “A truck outfitted with edge computing devices, for instance, can visit isolated villages and provide advanced healthcare by connecting residents to telemedicine services.”

Internet of Medical Things Devices

IoT stands for the Internet of Things--a class of devices with wireless connectivity that can transmit and analyze data in order to take pre-programmed real-world actions, using event triggers to eliminate or reduce the need for human intervention. Wearable biosensors and other devices that can provide wireless monitoring of chronic conditions can provide doctors with more accurate information to adjust medication dosage, increase patient compliance with medical advice, and, in some cases, provide life-saving interventions like dispensing insulin.

Being able to handle these tasks not only improves the care individual patients are able to receive, but improves care for everyone by reducing medical costs and expediting workflows. As a result, medical IoTs are being produced and developed at an incredibly fast pace. A 2021 Forbes article stated that the use of medical IoT is “expected to expand by a single-digit compound annual growth rate from 2020 to 2027, reaching nearly $43 billion worldwide.”

Improving Diagnoses Through AI

While increased online record-keeping and medical IoT have benefits all on their own, easy access to a plethora of data also provides AI with a wealth of data to analyze, enabling further improvements in healthcare. This is already being demonstrated with companies like Causaly, a UK-based biomedical research company that accelerated its AI development during the pandemic to enable faster advances in detecting and treating Covid-19. Causaly’s AI can be used to answer research questions that would take weeks or months by traditional means, enabling researchers to rapidly perform tasks like mapping epidemiological data and identifying potential treatment options.

Challenges With Next-Generation Healthcare

In spite of the recent advances in healthcare, its digital transformation is not without challenges. As more and more health records and services are made available online, health providers face increasing difficulties with maintaining data compliance, cyberattacks, the cost and resources needed to transfer huge amounts of data, and enabling online services in areas with low bandwidth or poor connectivity.

Data Privacy and Compliance

To ensure that confidential records are not leaked, stolen, or inadvertently delivered to the wrong patient, healthcare companies must adhere to strict regulations on how online data is stored and transmitted, which often differ by geolocation. Examples of this include the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR), America’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD). In addition, some laws, like the GDPR, require companies to disclose data breaches that impact their countries’ citizens regardless of where they are currently located, meaning that regulations may be different not only for different countries, but for specific patients, requiring the implementation of extremely granular policies.

Rising Cyberattacks

The need to protect patient data is further complicated by the fact that increased reliance on the Internet means increased cyberattacks. DDoS and ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly common; in 2020 alone, nearly a third of healthcare providers said they had encountered ransomware, according to Discover Magazine. Controlling data leaks is a challenge, especially because such leaks in the health industry often stem from insider threats. And with a large number of medical IoT devices delivering critical care and monitoring for patients, it is important to ensure that security extends to these devices, which can be hard to protect, since they often have less computing power, and, as a result, weaker cryptographic protocols than computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Availability and Performance

In addition to keeping data private and secure, having the speed and bandwidth needed to transmit large files and huge datasets can also pose a challenge, especially in areas that already have poor connectivity. For rural patients, the ability to receive care via telehealth or non-traditional locations like pop-up clinics is especially important since hospitals are often located far away; however, these efforts are only possible with the necessary infrastructure. In addition, medical IoT that take actions such as dispensing insulin or sending alerts in response to critical events must have real-time processing in order to be effective.

To meet the challenges posed by its digital transformation, the future of healthcare requires:

  • Less dependence on bandwidth for users with poor connectivity
  • Localized compliance with data privacy laws
  • Strong security with granular access control
  • Fast and cost-efficient transmission for scans and other large files
  • Automation for tasks like collecting and managing patient data
  • Mission-critical low-latency and real-time monitoring for health IoT

How Edge Computing Benefits Healthcare

The Problem With On-Premises and Cloud Infrastructure

A 2020 Dell survey found that health-care and life sciences data grew almost 900% over the previous two years, requiring significantly larger capabilities for data storage and transmission. Legacy infrastructure that must physically deploy new servers in order to scale is not only slow, but resource-intensive, as it provides little elasticity to scale back down when periods of high usage--such as Covid spikes--subside. Cloud platforms, which provide virtualized on-demand resources over the Internet, enable companies to pay as they go for usage, providing a more agile and cost-efficient method of scaling up and down, as well as the ability to secure and deliver services remotely, rather than relying on private networks like MLPS and hardware-based security solutions.

However, hyperscale cloud data centers are highly centralized, creating new problems for healthcare companies transitioning from legacy systems. When requests are made to cloud platforms, such as a patient accessing an online portal or a doctor downloading an MRI scan, they must travel to and from those faraway locations, resulting in high network latency, more congested networks, and higher data transfer costs. In addition, data that travels long distances must pass through various Internet exchange points (IXPs) and different networks, potentially traversing geographic boundaries where data privacy laws change and making data compliance more difficult to achieve.

Solving Problems at the Edge

By moving compute power closer to where data is generated or needed, edge computing enables better performance, more cost-efficient resource use, and localized compliance. As CIO Magazine notes, this represents a transformative development for health providers, as this type of real-time processing and analytics “creates the opportunity to identify, refine and understand data as it is generated for the fastest possible insights and action.”

This does not necessarily mean replacing the cloud, however. Edge locations are smaller than cloud data centers, enabling edge locations to be deployed in a variety of geographically distributed areas, but resulting in less computing power than hyperscale cloud centers. As a result, the edge and the cloud often complement, rather than compete, with each other. In the case of healthcare, this could mean processing some data--such as private patient records or time-sensitive requests--locally, while sending other data to the cloud.

In addition, edge computing is an enabler of 5G, which will further facilitate the development of next-generation healthcare with vastly improved capabilities for mobile networks. As Qualcomm explains, 5G’s peak capabilities include 20Gbps data transfer speeds, a 100x increase in traffic and network capacity than 4G networks, and end-to-end latency of 1ms. Even data travelling at the speed of light can only travel 300 km/ms, making millisecond-level latency impossible when completing lengthy round trips to and from cloud centers. By delivering from the edge, 5G networks can meet their ambitious technical standards and enable developing health technology like remote surgery.

Azion for Healthcare

Moving to the edge enables time and cost-saving innovations, and Azion’s platform is designed to help companies do so easily and securely--without the risk of vendor lock-in that can occur with other edge and serverless providers. Azion’s Edge Platform provides managed infrastructure to reduce operational tasks, while intelligent rule sets enable automated workflows. Our products include:

  • Edge Application for advanced caching capabilities. With it, you can break up and incrementally deliver large files to speed their transfer, personalize delivery by caching dynamic content, or create an additional cache layer between the edge and the origin for long-lived content, minimizing trips to the origin and reducing congestion.
  • Edge Firewall for integrated security with custom rule flexibility. With it, you can simplify and strengthen compliance, create granular permissions to reduce insider threats, and gain multilayer, in-depth protection against DDoS attacks, data breaches, and other threats that increasingly target the health industry.
  • Edge Functions for building event-driven functions that expand your programmability at the edge. Functions execute in response to event triggers and scale automatically, making them perfect for use cases like updating drug supply chains or generating alerts for health monitoring devices.
  • Real-Time Metrics and Edge Pulse for real-time observability of how your applications are being used. View overall usage patterns to improve your performance or monitor how individual users are interacting with your applications.

If you’re looking for a secure, performant, and easy to use edge platform to assist with your healthcare company’s digital transformation, find out what Azion can do for you by contacting our experts today.

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