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Sutter Health's CTO Focuses Attention on Big Data

By Peter High  |  Posted 04-14-2017
Big data

Sutter Health's CTO Focuses Attention on Big Data

Sutter Health is a not-for-profit health system serving more than 100 Northern California communities with approximately 5,000 physicians and 50,0000 employees, 24 acute care hospitals, dozens of outpatient surgery and specialty centers, and other health care services, including home health and hospice, as well as medical research, education and training. Sutter Health's mission is to enhance the health and wellbeing of people in the communities they serve through a commitment to compassion and excellence in health care services. As the chief technology officer, Wes Wright is responsible for the technical infrastructure on which Sutter Health's applications run, as well as the backend systems. As he discusses in this interview with CIO Insight contributor Peter High, Wright's team leads initiatives that help centralize operations, protect patient data and improve care across all of Sutter Health's facilities.

CIO Insight: Since you joined Sutter Health, what are some of the focal areas of the IT strategy you're building?

Wes Wright: Sutter Health has the nation's largest instance of EPIC, a major player in electronic health records (EHR) systems. To give you an idea of scale, the EPIC database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 terabytes.

I am also turning my attention to other areas, chief among them security. In order to have true IT security, I believe that you need to focus on data security and that requires three things: centralization, protection and monitoring.

Sutter has roughly 65,000 PCs running in our environment. That's 65,000 places where sensitive data could reside, meaning 65,000 potential loss points.

We're in the beginning stages of a full-scale VDI deployment using Citrix XenDesktop, which will replace all of those PCs and allow us to centralize our data. We're also going to add Microsoft 365 to the deployment, allowing us to deliver virtual workspaces to all of our clinicians and employees, as well as store data in Microsoft Exchange and OneDrive.

It's going to make things not only more secure, but much more efficient. The VDI rollout will also improve access controls, which is huge.

CIO Insight: What role do you see big data playing at Sutter?

Wright: From a true big data perspective, we've installed SAP HANA, and we currently have a 17-node Hadoop cluster, which we're about to expand to 45 nodes.

We know there is a potentially huge upside. Historically, EHRs have been transactional systems that keep track of what's happened in the past. But if we filter that transactional data from an EHR through the right analytics technologies, we might be able to start predicting what will happen, rather than focusing only on what has happened.

If you can do that, you might be able to avert—or at least curb—an outbreak of disease. You might be able to predict the likelihood of a particular patient having a bad drug interaction. You might be able to more accurately assess a particular patient's risk of infection. That carries a tremendous personal impact for the patient, as well as for healthcare in America and around the world.

One of the challenges, of course, is to access, analyze and correlate data from EPIC with other data sources in a scalable, cost-effective way. We're exploring a few different ways to do this, one of which is pulling that data directly off the network.

Platforms like ExtraHop and Splunk, as well as other tools that have traditionally been used for IT monitoring, are actually starting to prove their value in a broader business and clinical context. We're also interested in exploring how these once IT-centric options might help us drive broader big data initiatives.

Sutter Health's CTO Focuses Attention on Big Data

CIO Insight: Can you describe some of the innovative ways you are levering technology at Sutter?

Wright: As we're increasingly exploring different big data initiatives, we're actually moving much more heavily into the cloud. The cloud offers us a level of elasticity that we could never achieve in our own data centers, and that, in turn, gives us the freedom to do things like spin up and spin down Hadoop clusters as demand dictates.

Healthcare IT as an industry has historically been very reticent about cloud—and very slow to adopt it—because of the responsibility of protecting our patients' health information, but the upside is huge. Over the next two years, we're going to tackle major initiatives like interfacing genomic data with clinical records, and that is going to exponentially expand our need for compute and storage.

The cloud can offer that to us, and it can grow as we grow. By giving us the freedom to take on projects like that, we are helping to advance the state of the art of medicine by giving clinicians richer, more contextual data that can help them improve patient care and outcomes.

CIO Insight: What approach have you taken to ensure that your technology and data are secure?

Wright: There are really three key elements to ensure IT and data security: centralize, protect, monitor. The more places that data and IT resources reside, the harder it is to monitor and protect those locations and the data they contain. The VDI deployment is the first step, and that takes care of centralization.

From there, it's going to be a lot easier to protect data with tools like Lancope and some of Microsoft's security offerings to monitor user and device behavior patterns. With those technologies, we can actually see which devices are talking to each other and what they are communicating, as well as how users are communicating with each other and network-connected devices. That allows us to establish baselines and set up alerts on anomalies.

We also use solutions like FireEye and monitoring solutions like ExtraHop to spot anomalous behavior, investigate breaches and take a more proactive stance on security.

CIO Insight: As you look to the future, what technology trends particularly excite you?

Wright: This is really geeky, but the Intel 3D XPoint is going to be transformational. Being able to use all the dimensions on a chip is going to revolutionize the compute world. Things are going to be faster, cheaper, smarter. As much as anything, it's a game changer for the industry.

For healthcare, the cloud is really just starting to gain acceptance. But once the industry really figures out how to leverage the advantages it offers, there is major upside. It's going to allow healthcare IT to experiment with more innovative, cutting-edge projects like big data because scale in the cloud is so elastic.

OpenStack and open-source applications and operating systems are also going to become much more prevalent in healthcare over the next year as those offerings mature.

And perhaps most importantly, I'm excited to see what can be done in healthcare as these technologies gain a meaningful foothold. I feel like we're on the cusp of something great—of a Rosetta Stone, if you will—that is going to completely revolutionize healthcare for our patients.

It will be better, smarter, more proactive, more cost-effective. And lives will be saved. At the end of the day, that's what really matters.