Led by Chinese Internet commerce giants Tencent and Alibaba, internet providers have been offering a vast array of cloud computing services free to researchers and clinicians, while hiking their investment in advanced technologies, since the outset of the pandemic. It is still too early to know how the ramped-up use of cloud computing will affect the healthcare market in Asia over the long term, but already, there are signs the impact will be profound.
Cloud Computing and Its Impact on Healthcare
Cloud computing refers to the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer. It makes data available over the internet without direct management by the user. And it enables companies to distribute data-heavy digital resources in real time.
The technology has pushed the scalability and availability of remote work solutions and data processing, storage and sharing capabilities to new heights in recent years. As the trend has moved into Asia from its origins in the United States and Europe, it has been increasingly deployed by major public healthcare systems in China, Singapore, Japan and beyond. Cloud technologies allow healthcare providers to more efficiently collect, share, store and analyze patient data. They have enabled a world of web-based apps, virtual desktops, endpoint encryption and conferencing software, and are increasingly allowing remote analysis of real-time patient data.
Coronavirus Pandemic Pushes Cloud Computing into Forefront of Healthcare Innovation
Since COVID-19 began to spread through China and beyond, researchers started scrambling for ways to access a shared pool of data about the virulent disease. Cloud computing, with its promise of instant access to testing results, provides a way to streamline processes and rapidly share knowledge. Traditionally, hospitals and labs have been limited by their existing IT infrastructure. Only so much data can be stored in an on-premises server, and limits on available memory and processing mean only so many applications can run at one time. Cloud computing platforms do away with those limits, providing flexibility and allowing access for researchers to data and enabling applications—to more quickly and effectively develop potential coronavirus treatments and vaccines.
The utility of cloud computing in virus management first emerged during the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa. Computer giant IBM employed an array of cloud computing tools to help the government of Sierra Leone model the spread of the disease and hard-hit areas through its open government initiative (OGI).
In 2009 the CDC employed cloud technology to the H1N1 influenza outbreak. Since then, the agency has gathered data from regional National Influenza Reference Centers each year and uploaded it into a cloud-based computing platform. Over the past decade, CDC scientists and researchers have increasingly used the platform, which provides access to up-to-date information about the latest viral strains, to develop vaccines to manage seasonal flu outbreaks. Now, the CDC and other research organizations, public and private, are beginning to deploy the technology against COVID-19.
Companies Offer Free Services, Monetizing Shift to Cloud Computing over Long Term
China technology giants Tencent Holdings, Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holdings, Ltd. are both pouring money into a response to the virus. Tencent, best known as a video game giant that developed the app WeChat, was the first to offer a bundle of cloud computing services specifically designed to help businesses, medical institutions and governments confront the pandemic. The new service package introduced in March by the internet giant’s Tencent Cloud unit includes remote collaboration tools, systems to facilitate online medical consultation and products to help governments promote access to reliable information. Some of the tools are being provided free to needy companies and organizations, according to a press release from the company.
Alibaba began offering medical teams across the world free access to its artificial intelligence-infused cloud-based applications later in March. The services on offer are designed to support research into the diagnosis, treatment, testing and genome sequencing of the COVID-19, and to assist with mapping the progress of the pandemic. The services use Alibaba’s distance learning platform DingTalk, which enables videoconferencing and real-time artificial intelligence-powered language translation.
DingTalk was already used by more than 120 million students across China to live-stream classes, but during the pandemic, it is being offered as a free communications platform for frontline medical professionals and healthcare workers. Since January it has added 20,000 temporary servers and is being used by more than 200 million workers in 10 million enterprises.
The free services being offered by Alibaba appear to be just the first step for the tech giant. It has announced it will invest more than $28 billion in developing vast data centers and cloud systems, servers and chips over the next three years to prepare for the expected radical digital explosion of the post-pandemic world.
The recent moves by tech companies to deploy cloud computing resources in the fight against COVID-19 follow a steady rise in use of the technologies in the healthcare sector across Asia over the past several years. In China alone, the cloud market is expected to double by 2022, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.
Late last year MediWay Technology, a large healthcare software firm in China, launched its iMedical Cloud healthcare IT ecosystem platform. The platform permits the movement of high volumes of data across cloud-based servers to improve the exchange of healthcare information and resources.
Chinese software company Neusoft has been deploying cloud computing technologies increasingly in recent years. Since the coronavirus outbreak, it has made its self-reporting cloud-based system to public institutions, communities, schools, hospitals and enterprises to allow them to quickly collect statistics about epidemic prevention and control, including the location and travel information of people throughout China. The system can automatically summarize and analyze the data in real time to form a statistical report.
In Singapore, the public health sector has been using a private cloud service, the H-Cloud, since 2015. Developed by Integrated Health Information Systems, an IT service provider, it saves public hospitals money because they don’t need to buy separate software, hardware and professional services to manage their healthcare data.
The Global Growth in Cloud Computing Not Likely to Abate
With public and private doctors and healthcare institutions increasingly moving to online consulting amid widespread lockdowns, the spike in interest and use of cloud-based computing is not surprising. Cloud-based communication and collaboration platforms improve operational efficiency and employee productivity, help formulate estimates on requirements for ICU beds and ventilators, and seed clinical insights. But in a post-pandemic world, the efficiencies doctors, researchers, and patients are finding so necessary now will be even more in demand. That means the market for cloud computing technologies in Asia will only expand.