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Jodie Humphries
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Is healthcare realising the benefits of IT?

Over the years have governments finally realised that IT can play an influential part in healthcare?
23 Mar 2010

Cloud technology to combat cancer

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Cloud services provided over grid technology are helping to treat cancer patients, thanks to an enormous effort by European researchers working closely with industry.


Cancer is Europe's second largest killer and one of the most difficult diseases to treat. There are dozens of therapeutic protocols designed to respond to the vast diversity of cases that confront doctors. Radiotherapy has proven a particularly effective treatment. Here a linear accelerator, or Linacs in the jargon, attacks the cancer directly by delivering radiation from several directions. But treatment is complex. The direction, size and duration of dosages are all tailored to each case, and must be recalculated every time via simulation.

It is a phenomenally complicated computation, requiring lengthy processing time - so much so that it can mean delays and this has the knock-on impact of lowering the number of patients who can be treated by each Linacs machine. Faster diagnoses would help, but the required computing power is expensive, dramatically increasing the Linacs installation and operation costs. It is a critical bottleneck.

Cloudy strategy clears bottleneck

But not for long. A cloud computing solution for radiotherapy developed by the BEinGRID project uses a computer grid. This type of infrastructure can share out resources like processors, storage, networking and software, wherever they are and on whatever platform. Grids can deliver on-demand hardware and software, and because they are combined into a super system, they offer much more power at lower cost. The individual elements of the system are hidden in the cloud, invisible to the user.

The new RadiotherapyGrid delivers two services: treatment plan verification and search. The search function is optimised to provide alternative treatment plans based on the patient scan, treatment prescriptions and other constraints. Both services can run in the background. The doctor simply enters the details in a browser window, and is alerted by email when the results are ready. Security and Service Level Agreements (SSLAs) are a particular focus of the RadiotherapyGrid.

Grids excel at delivering these kinds of benefits, because they ensure that resources are used to the maximum of their capacity. Security can be guaranteed because the computers on the grid behave like a single supercomputer.

Better and cheaper

The upshot is that doctors can call on enormous computing resources without paying the full costs. It offers better performance, delivering faster results, and only when the service is required. Hospitals do not have to pay when the machines are idle. "The system can also be extended and adapted, to use new algorithms when new techniques and protocols are developed," reveals Andrés Gómez Tato, a BEinGRID Business Experiment manager from CESGA, one of BEinGRID's partner.

The BEinGRID partners in the radiotherapy application are now looking to exploit the service commercially, and they believe the market is very promising. Initially, the RadiotherapyGrid will be primarily marketed as a 'software-as-a-service' platform at these institutions, but ultimately it may also come with hardware. Moreover, the RadiotherapyGrid could be applied to other treatment modalities, like the Image Guided Radiotherapy (IGRT), hadrontherapy or brachiatherapy.

So far healthcare organisations have been slow to benefit from the power of cloud computing. The BEinGRID project, however, proves that clouds are more than a just a cancer killer, they are a killer app.

Article provided courtesy of ICT Results. For more information, please visit cordis.europa.eu/ictresults

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Cloud computing in healthcare

The Data Management Healthcheck 2010 survey, carried out by BridgeHead Software, found only 6.5 percent of healthcare respondents said cloud storage is currently part of their strategy for storage of archived data. Not only that, but only 33 percent of healthcare organisations said they planned to adopt a cloud storage strategy for any data over the next 12-24 months.

"While preliminary, these results are highly indicative of the industry's concern about the security of confidential and sensitive material," said Tony Cotterill, CEO of BridgeHead Software. "Second to delivering excellent care, healthcare leaders are committed to protecting any and all information pertaining to patients."

A major challenge for cloud computing is security of patient records and the need to audit all the processes and systems because of potential breaches in confidentiality laws. At the moment, there are no clearly defined laws for sharing patient data across those clouds.

Nonetheless, a report by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) entitled Benefits, Risks for Information Security stated that cloud computing is set to see massive global investment in many sectors. The report, conducted in 2009, estimated that around the world in 2013, €32.5 billion will be spent on the technology, with €6 billion being spent in the European market.


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