25 October 2021

Information on the edge

Comment Technology

Behind the scenes of every telehealth appointment, behind the genomic sequencing that teaches us about new strains and behind every other aspect of digital health lies a series of interconnected data centres powering it all.

While they remain largely out of sight and out of mind to the everyday person, data centres are a cornerstone for how we are rapidly advancing healthcare, and indeed will be pivotal in how we can better beat back tomorrow’s pandemics.

Some might criticise the industry for stubbornly holding on to outdated technology: fax machines, filing cabinets full of physical data, paper-based processes. 

But much of this stems from the regulation that carefully monitors what technologies are suitable and accepted into the industry. This is necessary; while other industries may have more freedom to try and fail, healthcare is life and death, and technology adoption needs to be tried, tested and shown to enhance treatment.

Even with strong regulation in place, Australia’s healthcare industry is making huge strides, with incredible innovation happening in areas such as medical imaging, diagnostics and robotic surgery, to name just a few. 

But on the global stage, Australia is still lagging in its contribution to scientific and technological innovation. According to the World Index of Healthcare Innovation, IT is the element weighing down the nation.  

Data centres can play an effective role in bringing together regulation and innovation, providing secure and low-latency access to new and evolving digital health services. With effective back-up capability, they can ensure that these systems don’t go down – this is becoming as important as the back-up generators that ensure hospitals always have power. 

Medical equipment such as imaging, diagnostics and vaccine storage requires constant availability to deliver accurate health services. Power outages can put patients at risk, and latency impairs an environment where accuracy and timeliness are critical. 

We are increasingly seeing the role of “edge computing” – smaller, modular data centre infrastructure located at or very near to where the data is being processed, i.e., the hospitals themselves – as a healthy part of a healthcare system’s IT network.

This kind of infrastructure is vital to not only protect equipment but also ensure the delivery of care is a strong experience. There are certain applications where a moment or two of delay or latency doesn’t really matter. Email is a good example – it doesn’t really matter if it arrives a second or two late. But a constant two-second lag over a Zoom or Teams call could ruin the experience entirely.

This is particularly important given the pandemic-driven – but here-to-stay – revolution in telehealth. 

Despite network traffic increases of up to 45 per cent, data centres seamlessly maintained virtual communications throughout covid-19, and now 79 per cent of Australians are reporting that their use of telehealth will extend beyond the pandemic. 

With these services becoming commonplace across the country, the industry will more heavily rely on robust, low-latency data centre infrastructure to support it. Regional areas in particular can benefit from telehealth, avoiding cumbersome travel for appointments and opening up access to specialist clinicians across Australia. 

Regions can benefit further through edge computing as regional hospitals can’t necessarily rely on data centres hundreds or thousands of kilometres away in cities to process their critical, time-sensitive data. Data processing at the edge is both more cost efficient and can help make the digital experiences of regional and metropolitan hospitals the same.

It’s examples like this that show us that our acceleration of healthcare technology can not only improve healthcare overall, but also help to solve deep-rooted issues such as healthcare inequity.

Further, data has been a clear differentiator in this pandemic compared with pandemics of old – grim as it sounds, we’ll probably deal with more pandemics that could be even more damaging in the future. Data, and the infrastructure that supports it, will be a major ally in how we respond.

Robert Linsdell is A/NZ Managing Director of critical infrastructure company Vertiv, and Andy Berry is Vice-President and Country General Manager of technology distributor Tech Data.

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