Mercy Takes a Healthy Approach to Technology

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2015-10-08 Email Print this article Print
Heath care storage

The health care system is moving to virtualized electronic health record systems and building out an IT infrastructure that provides availability and resiliency.

Health care organizations are under growing pressure to adopt a spate of electronic systems and to use information technology to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.

At Mercy, which operates 46 acute-care and specialty heart, children's, orthopedic and rehab hospitals—as well as nearly 700 other clinics and facilities in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma—the focus is on taking medicine into the 21st century. This includes moving to virtualized electronic health record (EHR) systems and building out an IT infrastructure that provides the availability and resiliency needed in today's world.

"We determined that Mercy needed to adopt a single easy-to-use electronic health care record system that the entire network of hospitals and facilities could share," says Scott Richert, vice president of enterprise infrastructure services. "By using a 'one-patient one-record' system we could eliminate multiple IT systems in different hospitals and offices, deliver a consistent and more seamless experience and reduce IT overhead."

Among other things, that meant moving IT out of hospital basements, building a centralized data center and putting a wide area network (WAN) in place. Mercy installed a two-carrier MPLS network and constructed a new data center.

The three primary goals were high availability, standardization and affordability. "We didn't want to drain the bank account every year," Richert explains. "We needed to operate in a lean way because we are a nonprofit health care ministry that aims to improve health care for the whole of society."

The organization ultimately turned to NetApp to build out highly flexible network-attached storage (NAS) to bolster storage, deduplication, mirroring and other tasks, as well as to trim costs—particularly those related to handling EHRs. "There were a lower number of spindles required than with other solutions," he says.

Trimming Costs, Improving Efficiency

The results have been impressive. The organization has managed to trim its storage costs by about 75 percent over a four-year period. It also was able to reduce some backups from more than 48 hours to less than an hour, Richert adds.

Moreover, Mercy has achieved far better disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities. For example, when a tornado leveled St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, "We were able to get back in business and ship patient information—either by print or electronically—to other community hospitals within Joplin within a few hours because all the data is consolidated, rather than being spread across different systems," he explains.

Richert says that the biggest challenges were cultural. "We had to earn the trust that we could take away local compute resources and host critical applications and data that people required," he says. "By demonstrating network availability and data accessibility, we were able to earn trust and move forward."

Mercy now supports more than 1,100 health care applications, and 85 percent of them are virtualized. The centerpiece is the Epic EHR system, which now runs within a VMware environment.

With a more robust IT platform and storage, Mercy is also moving forward with other initiatives, including big data and analytics, telemedicine and real-time location services using RFID. In fact, Mercy now offers its IT model and expertise to other health care organizations.

"We have managed to transform IT from a cost center into a profit center," Richert reports. "We are approaching health care with a focus on innovation and on improving the quality of services."

Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).

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