Cut Through the Cloud Vendor Clutter

June 11, 2019

There are many factors to consider when choosing a cloud vendor. Learn how you can pick the best fit for your organization and stay ahead of the curve.

Today’s healthcare consumers want a seamless digital experience, one that allows them to be an active participant in their healthcare. The problem is keeping up with the rapid changes that technology offers and making sure the capabilities you are offering to customers aren’t obsolete before they are up and running.

The question is, how do you stay ahead of the game? While it’s nearly impossible to predict what new technologies are coming up, cloud technology offers a flexible and agile solution. The key is knowing what your customers want and what kind of model your organization will be comfortable with.

A recent report from the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services shows that 53% of healthcare businesses take many months to a year to integrate technology changes into their existing systems. That’s because 62% of them report using between two and 10 different customer-facing software systems. Roughly one-quarter of healthcare leaders responding to the survey weren’t even sure how many software systems they utilized.

For these reasons and many more, healthcare companies are looking to simplify their digital solutions and create a better experience for consumers, and one that can change more swiftly with the rapidly changing technology landscape. The report goes on to note that 58% of companies in the survey planned to consolidate technology platforms for simplicity, 49% were looking to improve agility, and 43% were looking to migrate to cloud-based applications to achieve these goals.

With so many cloud-based services to choose from, the question then becomes, how does one choose the right fit and stay ahead of the game?

What is cloud technology and why do I need it?

Cloud technology is used in so many customer-facing systems across industries and is a way for a company or service provider to interface with consumers using web-based tools and applications, rather than through an in-house server. Building and maintaining in-house technology can be expensive, time-consuming, and quickly become obsolete.

Kevin Riley, senior vice president and general manager at Vlocity, a developer of industry-specific cloud and mobile software, in San Francisco, says cloud technology is the key to digital transformation.

"You're going to have to adopt a technology, and that technology should be cloud,” Riley says. "Regardless of what problem you're solving for, if you're not buying cloud technology, you're buying an expensive problem."

Cloud technology takes away the burden of maintaining an in-house system by letting someone else with probably more expertise build and host the system not to mention deal with security.

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Digital transformation is being driven by several factors, Riley explains, and all of these set the stage for the healthcare industry to adopt cloud technology. The first is customer experience. Bad customer experiences have put the health insurance industry in particular at the bottom of the customer experience scale, Riley says. That doesn't mean, however, that the healthcare industry should rush into creating a lot of technical debt to improve their customer service experience.

"Modern day vendors already have customer experience people on staff," Riley says. "Work with vendors that are telling you they can change your customer experience."

The second driver of digital transformation is product innovation. It's important to be able to stand out in the products you offer, and to have the technology to bring those new products to market quickly, Riley says. Top startups use lean technology to bring new products to market and test distribution channels without high overhead costs, Riley says. Utilize vendors who have these systems in place rather than recreating the wheel.

Another key to digital transformation is making sure that you are using a vendor who offers straight-through automation or processing Riley says.

"Can the vendor help prevent partner fatigue? Is the process tedious or attractive? Is it end-to-end and does it look unified?" are key question to ask when reviewing a vendor's process, Riley says.

Finally, companies should seek out cloud vendors that provide application consolidation, Riley says. Some health plans have hundreds of apps to manage, and a good cloud vendor will be able to help with that.

Identify your organization’s needs

Each cloud vendor offers similar services, yet each have their niche, as well. Some might have stronger customer service elements, while others might excel in healthcare-specific services.

Riley says it’s important when seeking out a cloud vendor to find one who has customers with similar service lines to yours. The ideal vendor will have worked with other companies within your industry and are well-established and well-funded enough that you can be sure they will stay in business and aren't a fly-by-night startup.

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It’s also important to find out how willing and able that vendor is to create new products and services to meet your unique needs. For this reason, Riley says leaders should always question accessibility when choosing a cloud vendor.

"How much access do you have to the people that think about and create the product, and can you drive product design?" Riley says. "People are building software now using agile technologies. The software never stops being developed. The only way to judge that is to see whether you have access to influence the people who control what gets built." 

Know what you want and what's being offered

Graham Hughes, MD, chief executive of Sutherland Healthcare, an international process transformation company, says there is a lot of confusion around cloud-based services in the healthcare industry. The first step to knowing what you need is to really understand first what you want to achieve, and second what level of service is offered by a vendor. Hughes says he often shares with his customers an analogy about pizza.

"If you want pizza, you've got choices. You can make it from scratch with flexibility and control, but not with scale. You have to pick a kind and stick with it," Hughes explains. "That model is like an on-premise model where you have everything in-house to manage technology and infrastructure."

The next option, Hughes says, is to buy your pizza from a store. "Frozen pizza has everything you need, but you still have to cook it," he says. "That is more like infrastructure as a service. It's the most basic way, where you just use technology for storage and computing."

The next service level is delivery pizza. With that model, someone else does all the work and delivers it to you, but you still have to arrange for cleanup. That is more like a platform-based service, he explains, where you use a vendor's infrastructure to do more than the basic functions.

Finally, there is going to a restaurant for pizza. "You have your choice and it's full service," Hughes says.

The key is knowing how much you need, how much control of flexibility you want, and how involved you want to be.

"There's so many different flavors of cloud that you can adopt, and we encourage customers we work with to think through what they are trying to do and which of these models they want."

Vetting vendors is key

Ken Cahill, chief executive officer of SilverCloud Health, a global health technology company, says whatever vendor you choose, it’s important that they be vetted, and that you take care in how you are selecting that vendor.”

“There’s something to be learned from the old adage, ‘You can’t be fired for buying IBM,’” Cahill says. “The fundamentals of business have and haven’t changed.”

Whatever vendor you choose, you must be conscious about who is leading that organization, how it is being led, what colleagues are saying about that vendor’s services, and make sure that the product will hold the same level of regard as whatever it is replacing, Cahill says.

“We’ve seen a number of vendors who can come into a marketplace and look slick and shiny, but we have to see what’s behind that,” Cahill says. Ask for case studies and testimonials, he suggests.

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Some newer vendors might not be able to compete with the sheer scale that vendors like Google or Microsoft have, but maybe they have had contracts with larger health systems or government entities, he adds. Then again, those bigger vendors have proven track records when it comes to things like security. It can be tempting to jump into transitioning to cloud services, and to jump into the next big thing. But Cahill warns that first or fastest isn’t always best.

“The caution I would raise is to move at pace, but make sure you’re doing the right things in terms of due diligence and vetting,” Cahill says, adding you have to be able to show your board the steps and processes you went through in making your vendor selection. “Fast has to be at pace, but it can’t be at a reckless one.”

Don’t rush, make a plan

There are so many options when it comes to cloud vendors and services. This is a good thing-and it’s not.

"You have to plan it, understand what you are trying to accomplish, and what roles you need, and that culminates in a three-year transformation blueprint," Hughes says of the way cloud transitions work through Sutherland.

Anticipate surprises and be prepared to have lots of questions about your organization's needs, he says.

"No one should start knowing the journey they are on," Hughes says. "Think, what do I need the cloud to do for me? Understand the customers' needs, what the clinicians need, and design it. Think about the end-to-end journey and what it means to users."

Leadership may also want to review what other applications they are using in the planning phase of a cloud transition, and plan for restructuring in a measured pace.

"The big bang approach is typically not a great recipe for success," he says.

The move to cloud services and any related restructuring should be done in phases, with considerations about what to do with data and how to phase out old tech, Hughes says.

Keep in mind, Hughes says, that cloud isn't necessarily the cheapest option-depending on which options you choose, cloud could be costly.

"It will probably give you the best total cost of ownership over a three- to five-year period as capabilities evolve," Hughes says. "The thing that you get with cloud services is instead of every individual hospital trying to keep up with and maintain the latest technologies and security measures, you can just push all of that to people who are managing it for tens of thousands of other organizations."

Consider a hybrid

The nice thing about cloud, Hughes adds, is that there is a fit for every need. From basic storage to computing, you pay for how much you use-and that might mean using more than one vendor.

Cloud vendors are also working to distinguish themselves from one another, developing specific capabilities tailored to healthcare. Each vendor may have their own specialty, such as algorithms for managing diabetes patients, and many healthcare companies may look to hybrid models to best meet their needs, Hughes says.

"The whole world is likely to evolve over the next five to 10 years in a hybrid cloud model," Hughes says. "That's where the idea of plan it and design it comes in, so you can keep your flexibility."

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Using multiple vendors allows an organization to keep their options open with the ability to be more flexible, Hughes says. Larger organizations may be able to manage using multiple vendors in a hybrid model, where smaller organizations may want to pick one vendor with the best fit and stick with them.

"You've really got to think about the size of your organization and the skillset you've got," Hughes says. "Technology is getting too complex to have all the talent needs in-house, whether it's infrastructure services, cloud service, platform, or software.

Organizations just absolutely are going to have to leverage more and more of these services or they won't be able to keep up with the rate of change. Our customers are looking for someone to make it easy."

 Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a writer in Columbia Station, Ohio.

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