When doctors or physician groups brainstorm on ways to use cloud computing in their businesses, they often come up with common and specific types of office implementation. One involves replacing bulky and outdated physical file systems with electronic medical records (EMR) that can be loaded to the cloud.

Using cloud services takes medical record and patient chart digitization a step further: Many doctors are switching to electronic medical records and keeping paperless files on in-house servers, while others are storing digital records at off-site locations.

For doctors, this is not the only cloud computing advantage: Most types of medical office data can be sent to the cloud, including scheduling and billing information. For example, in some modern medical offices, patients are given "keychains" that track their progression through the various stages of office processing. Such technologies are popular in day surgery units and other areas where knowing a patient's exact physical location at any given time is critical. Clerical staff may need immediate access to records during a patient visit, but theoretically, the data can be sent to remote clouds for long-term archiving.

Benefits of Cloud Computing for Doctors' Offices

For the medical community, a popular cloud service attraction relates to the push for even more offsite equipment and information. Often, when medical practices go paperless, they feel like they can breathe again - with a bonanza of empty space in office areas that may be designated and used as patient processing or consultation rooms. However, in many cases, in-house digital record keeping can create headaches for doctors and their staff. Servers maintenance can be challenging, and record security systems often create additional issues, especially if in-house staff lack the required training needed to understand technology functionalities.

Another selling point of health care related cloud services is security. Medical offices are legally required to adhere to strict accounting of "patient health information," which is the cornerstone of effective care in a doctor’s practice. A key example is HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act - a 90s-era legislation that imposes strict security controls on patient records. Doctors often jump at the chance to outsource security to remote systems provided by cloud services. Providers, for their part, are continually working on "seamless account provisioning" and "single point access," in addition to similar systems that make security features work while maintaining easy record access for legitimately authorized staff.

Drawbacks to Medical Cloud Services

A simple way to explain the key dangers of cloud service and medical office integration relates to a previously mentioned issue: Security. Although secure cloud systems can simplify the lives of doctors, not all cloud providers have learned how to ensure failsafe systems. Outside security experts often point to instances of "attack vectors" that leave patient health information vulnerable to "malicious outsiders," where systems are less secure than advertised. An argument here is that, by adding another layer of complexity to the digital process, doctors may open themselves to hackers and others to a greater extent, as malicious outsiders have more open approach points.

In terms of security, a related issue is how cloud services work with handheld devices, like smartphones or tablets. The best vendors have found ways to prevent patient health information from migrating to unauthorized devices, but some cloud users have reported nightmare scenarios. For example, an employee that takes work home may discover data has mistakenly been routed to the phone of a family member - essentially dragging sensitive information into the street.

Loss of control is another issue. Some doctors compare this concept to the difference between driving a car and flying in an airplane. Without cloud services, medical staffers have direct access and direct control over their files. With cloud services, that access is controlled by the provider. Some medical staffers may be frustrated by remote downtime that appears to arbitrarily crash in-house systems and interrupt daily schedules. Again, the frequency of such downtime largely depends on the integrity of services provided by a particular vendor.

Creating the Right "Equation" for Using Medical Cloud Services

The bottom line is that cloud services are useful, but only if they are utilized easily and successfully. This means doing necessary "due diligence" on advertised cloud vendor services and surveying in-house staff, sometimes with actual surveys or questionnaires, to ensure that medical practice personnel are equipped with the IT prowess required to handle remote systems. Skilled, experienced and trained staff make all the difference. This is why many third-party medical consultants advise doctors to carefully vet their cloud services while matching their technologies to the right resources and staff for a much smoother ride through 2012 - and beyond.