FDA, NIH finding solutions to health care problems in the cloud

At the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and several other health care related agencies, the move to cloud computing is having a dramatic impact on their mission.

The FDA, for example, launched a new infrastructure-as-a-service platform as part of the Precision Medicine initiative.

Todd Simpson, the FDA chief information officer, said by moving to cloud computing services, the agency can process huge amounts of data a lot easier and more quickly.

“It’s running in the Amazon Web services environment. We are very proud of that, it just recently happened, two weeks ago, and it’s one of the milestones in our strategic plan under the initiative of standing up the cloud brokerage service and really using the cloud to speed up all that processing time,” Simpson said Dec. 15 at the 2015 Health IT day sponsored by AFCEA’s Bethesda, Maryland chapter. “At the FDA, we ingest large amounts of data, regulatory data, industry data and data from genomic sequencing and medical devices. What used to take weeks to process, we can now do in literally hours.”

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Simpson said the infrastructure in the cloud is part of an ongoing transformation to move away from on-premise computing environments.

He said the cloud lets the FDA spin up more processing power when needed and spin it down when it’s not.

Simpson said the on-premise approach is costly and requires huge investments.

“It’s almost like chasing your tail, because as soon as you make the investment, you are out of date,” he said. “Whereas if you leverage the cloud, you can really stay current and get everything you need.”

At the NIH, the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute is taking advantage of the cloud to reduce the time it takes to perform an MRI and process the data from the scan.

Alastair Thomson, the CIO for NHLBI, said his office is working closely with Microsoft and Amazon to use their government-only clouds at three facilities to use this new MRI approach to reduce the time of the scan to about 20 minutes from typically an hour.  Dr. Michael Hansen of the NHLBI Division of Intramural Research  is leading the MRI cloud project.

“It’s a huge advance. It involves sending the raw data out of the MRI sensors to the cloud. We’ve done it with Amazon and we’ve done it with Microsoft. It reconstructs it on a large cluster of computers, something that we couldn’t fit into an MRI suite easily, and it sends it back in one or two seconds,” he said. “The first reaction from the security people was ‘You can’t do that. You can’t put that kind of data in the cloud.’ Then we did a lot of investigation and we realized that the raw MRI data coming off the sensors might as well be encrypted. You need advanced algorithms to do anything with it. It’s de-identified when it goes away. It’s never stored there. It’s computed on and sent back. It makes it a lot easier. But we had to work through what the implications of that were.”

Thomson said now NHLBI is working with Microsoft on how best to ensure the integrity of the data because it’s going to be used by doctors to make decisions.

“I’ve come to recognize that just in the government cloud Microsoft spends about $100 million a year in terms of just IT security. There is no way any one of us could do that for our environments,” he said. “It’s been about building understanding from the commercial provider about what they actually do, how are they protecting it and what do we need to do layer our protections on top of it.”

Thomson said NHLBI also will take advantage of the cloud to improve collaboration on research.

“NIH has just implemented a science DMZ [separating trusted from untrusted networks] to allow communication of data over Internet 2 at extreme high speeds,” he said. “That brings entirely new implications because the data you are collaborating on may be clinical data. How do we deal with it? How do we secure it? There is a lot of learning we have to do about how it will work.”

Internet 2 is non-profit made up of public and private sector organizations, research labs and universities around the world to provide high-speed network services and a secure testing environment.

Simpson also has an Internet 2 initiative as part of FDA’s new IT strategic plan.

“We have huge interoperability issues between our systems. We have security issues. We have the classic problem that everyone has where we are trying to co-mingle disparate data sets. Those are the top three problems that everyone who has big data is dealing with,” he said. “But I have additional interoperability problems. I have labs all across the U.S. that are coming in with everything is Ethernet and we are not equipped to get those feeds. The Internet of Things is coming in quickly in the labs presence and we are trying to adapt from that standpoint.”

Simpson said the FDA also is looking for a business intelligence-as-a-service platform, and recently launched data loss prevention software.