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Creating Healthcare Cloud Security for Cancer Research

By Elizabeth Snell

Healthcare cloud security is becoming an increasingly important issue in the healthcare space, especially as more organizations are using cloud options for storage and other needs. More facilities are also branching into healthcare research options, and are beginning to consider the cloud as a way to securely share clinical and patient data.

Healthcare cloud security critical for data research

Intel recently announced the Collaborative Cancer Cloud (CCC), a new platform that will enable secure clinical and research data sharing among participating institutions. However, patient privacy is still a top priority, according to Eric Dishman, Intel Fellow and General Manager of Intel Health & Life Sciences Group. CCC is being done in conjunction with Oregon Health & Science University, Dishman said, and will allow large amounts of patient genomic data to be analyzed in a distributed way that does not compromise health data privacy or security.

A common problem that Intel was hearing, according to Dishman, was that there was not a good way of sharing access to data without giving up control of that data. Additionally, imaging and genomic files are so huge that researchers explained they couldn’t afford to send them around the country even when it was legally possible to do so. Finding a large enough sample size to improve research was also a difficulty, he added, partly due to barriers for using and securing the data.

“So that was what motivated us saying, ‘Alright, we're going to come and start working on a set of shared analytics tools that basically send the analysis to the data, as opposed to assuming you're going to put all the data in one place,’” he said.

Ensuring health data security through data research

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One of the main focus areas of the CCC was ensuring that data was being shared securely, Dishman said. Along with data management and accelerating the software pipeline, Dishman explained that the CCC software analytics platform creates a secure container.

If an oncologist had a patient, and wanted to learn more about how a similar condition had been treated, Dishman explained that the physician could compose a query to the CCC network. The oncologist will already know the patient’s genome information and medical history, and is simply looking for another patient who matches up genetically and phenotypically. From there, the oncologist could potentially find out what type of treatment would be best suited.

“When that happens, that query gets put into a secure container that's encrypted and it goes out,” Disman said. “This is what we mean by sending the analysis to the data, instead of putting all the data in one place.”

That oncologist could then receive de-identified results. It could be results from three other cancer centers or it could be thousands of other cancer centers, Dishman said, but the data is being protected in two ways.

One, healthcare organizations are not giving up control of their patient data. The information will be de-identified, but the data itself does not actually leave the original site.

READ MORE: OIG Finds Unprotected PII in Federal Cloud Computing System

“It's still under their control and hopefully they've got the right security in place for the data center,” Dishman said. “And it's also protecting whoever is doing the query. If a researcher is using that, and they have a really interesting algorithm or new drug they're doing research on, they don't want to share with all of these other places. So that secure container is really connecting both parties. But the moment it's left your data center, that secure container then dissipates any data that was used, and just the results go back to the host institution.”

The future of secure health data sharing

Health data sharing is important to the future of healthcare, according to Dishman. Patients not only need access to their own data, but they should also be able to decide who gets what data about them.

In terms of research though, Dishman explained that there are likely many patients who would be willing to have their information shared. They would likely understand that they are helping others by donating their data, and to that same effect, others will do the same and a chance for finding a cure is greater. As long as the exchange is secure, patients will likely be open to the process, Dishman said, adding that he is a cancer survivor himself.

Being able to reassure individuals that their information is being handled properly is essential, he added, and is already part of the challenge that clinical institutions have today. People want to know that their healthcare organization is putting in reasonable security measures to try and make sure that there will be no breach of confidential data.

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“Healthcare organizations are not sharing with their patients the details of what technologies they’ve bought, or what levels of encryption they’re using,” Dishman said, adding that no one expects consumers to know great details about the technical back end. “I think ultimately you’ll start to see just as individual physicians and clinics are being rated on the web, one of the criteria for rating will be their security history.”

Healthcare facilities need to help their patients understand that they are doing everything in their power to secure the data. Moreover, individuals need to understand the power of their health data, and that contributing to things like the CCC is going to not only help future generations but it’s going to help them as well. The more data that these queries can access, the better chance your clinician has of making a truly data-based decision about what treatment you should be on, Dishman said.

“While we have focused on cancer, because that’s where genomics is the most advanced in being able to make linkages between specific drugs and variance, there’s no reason the same infrastructure can’t be used for a collaborative Alzheimer’s cloud or another area,” he added. “This is really a fundamental infrastructure for the future of precision health.” 

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