Cloud computing offers many advantages to healthcare over in-house IT departments. Four reasons include lowered expenses, scalability, cybersecurity, and connectivity virtually anywhere. 

But there are limits. Many of these can be found in areas involving direct patient monitoring and care. Imagine if a patient’s insulin pump stopped working as its artificial intelligence (AI) waited for data from the cloud. Or the surgical arms used in robotic-assisted surgery froze for a split second due to a temporary loss in connectivity. Both imaginary scenarios could have dire consequences. 

To deal with these limits, healthcare is turning to edge computing. 

What is Edge Computing?

Cloud computing processes client data on off-site servers. Medical offices could be sending the billing or EMR records displayed on their medical computer to networks physically located thousands of miles away. 

Edge computing is the opposite. It refers to those devices and networks located as close as possible to the source of the data. A server located in a hospital or a mobile device at a patient’s home are two such examples. 

This proximity to the source of data gives edge computing the following advantages over cloud computing. 

Maximize Bandwidth Use

Bandwidth is how much data can be transmitted across a wired or wireless network like the cloud. Many have limits on how much they can transmit at a given time. If a file is too large, which is quite common in medicine, it can take a significantly long time to reach the cloud, get processed, and returned to its source. 

That’s if the file can even reach the cloud. Mike Angelakos is the chief technology officer at Geisinger, a healthcare system based in Danville, Pennsylvania. He says many physicians in the group deal with images that are 3GB to 6GB each. “And because they’re so large, and because of how they’re read and rendered on the screen, that’s not something you can move to the cloud.” 

This can have consequences in emergencies when time is of essence. “When we back up radiology images for trauma, those extra seconds mean something to those patients,” he notes.

Edge computing does not have this problem because it’s not limited to the bandwidth restrictions of the cloud. Bandwidth of a local network like a hospital is usually much larger. And if it’s not, it can be altered to prioritize data like those radiologists’ files. The providers could then bring up those multiple images without fear it will take too long to display or won’t display at all. Diagnosis could then be made in real-time which can save lives. 

Handling Connectivity Problems

Cloud computing works as long as connectivity is reliable and constant. Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s not the real world. Such connectivity is subject to disruption to being virtually non-existent. Rural areas and out-of-way places face this issue constantly as covered in Battling the Unique Challenges Faced by Rural Hospitals

Edge computing can help. Both its programs and data are stored locally. This means patient data like vitals are not lost if there’s suddenly a cut in connection to the cloud. Providers and staff can also continue their work updating patient records without online access. Those records can then be uploaded once connectivity is restored. 

“Edge computing enables doctors to deliver care to remote areas where connectivity may not be great and skilled healthcare personnel may not be available,” notes Sid Shah, program manager for Frost & Sullivan. “It offers the ability to process data locally and provide clinical decision support to even low-skilled healthcare workers.”

This ability to store data locally is leading to some exciting applications. In Barcelona, Spain, several EMTs have used medical tablets to take and store vital signs and even high-definition video of trauma patients. That information is then sent via 5G to emergency room personnel when it becomes available. This improves the patients’ chances of recovery. 

“By enabling edge computing inside emergency vehicles, EMTs can transmit crucial data to the hospital in real time, arming emergency department teams with the knowledge they need to save lives,” points out Weisong Shi, a researcher in the field of edge computing and connected health and professor of computer science at Wayne State University.

Speeding towards Zero Latency

The time it takes for data to travel from one point to another is called “latency.” An example is a request sent for patient records from a medical PC to the cloud. 

Latency is usually measured in milliseconds. While this sounds instantaneous from the human point of view, it can be slow among applications like medical devices. Ideally, that number should be as close to zero as possible. Too much latency can be deadly in healthcare. 

The insulin pump mentioned in the introduction is one example. It works using sensors inserted under the skin of diabetic patients. They monitor blood sugar levels and transmit that information to an insulin pump and a handheld device. Programs inside the pump predict where blood sugar levels may be, and direct the pump to give the appropriate amount of insulin. 

Delays in data collection, analysis, and reaction in these pumps can be dangerous. “Many of these medical devices must respond immediately to sensor data, within milliseconds,” David C. Klonoff, MD, medical director of the Diabetes Research Institute at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, said when asked about using cloud computing to handle such devices. “They can’t function properly if they need to wait for data to be sent to a remote location, analyzed, and then sent back. The latency for controlling an artificial organ like this is not compatible with analysis of data on the cloud. Edge computing is needed.”

Closing Comments 

Cloud computing offers many advantages over on-site IT network setups in handling data. It does have limits, namely in transmitting large files, dealing with interruptions in connectivity, and speed. Healthcare organizations are turning to edge computing to answer these limitations.

If your medical company is looking into the use of edge computing in your healthcare organization, contact a representative from Cybernet. Also follow Cybernet on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin to stay up to date on this and other relevant topics.