Medical Imaging Gets Free Ride In the Cloud

Dell, Merge Healthcare partnership gives clinicians free access to the software vendor's image sharing system, also adds flexibility for selling add-on services.
Health IT Boosts Patient Care, Safety
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Medical imaging software developer Merge Healthcare has introduced free access to a cloud-based image-sharing network. The company has partnered with Dell, which already manages more than 4 billion medical images and related studies, announced Chicago-based Merge at its annual users' conference this week.

Merge said that the imaging cloud, dubbed Merge Honeycomb, will be the nation's largest network for sharing medical images. Honeycomb, which the vendor will formally launch at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting in November, will be open to all healthcare organizations, regardless of whether they are Merge customers.

Under the partnership with Dell, Merge's iConnect vendor-neutral archive has been certified for use on the Dell DX object storage platform.

[All this new electronic health data has to be stored somewhere. Find out why the cloud is a good match for healthcare.]

Though image uploading, downloading, viewing, and sharing will be free, Merge executives said the cloud will present the company ample opportunity sell additional products and services, including image archiving, backup and recovery, and integration with electronic health records (EHRs). "We viewed this as Merge really embracing across-the-board cloud computing," executive VP Steve Brewer told InformationWeek Healthcare during the user meeting.

"It's a competitive advantage, it's a differentiator," Merge CEO Jeff Surges added. According to Surges, Merge customers typically have only one or two of the seven modules the vendor offers, providing plenty of room for "same-store growth," he said. "We hope to leverage the largest customer base for imaging software in the country."

Surges said that Merge technology currently is in about 1,500 hospitals and 6,000 ambulatory treatment sites around the country, including physician offices, imaging centers, and surgical facilities. He said that the imaging cloud offers a chance to reach many of the 4,000 hospitals and 20,000 outpatient locations Merge does not already serve.

Brewer said he didn't believe that image sharing by itself was a viable, long-term business model in a changing healthcare environment. The Meaningful Use incentive program for EHRs is encouraging health information exchange of all kinds and it's entirely possible federal officials will include image exchange in later stages. Plus, the shift to bundled payments and the advent of accountable care organizations will "necessitate image interoperability" anyway, Brewer said.

Surges said image sharing will help with patient safety and satisfaction by cutting down on the number of duplicate tests, potentially saving money and protecting people from unnecessary extra radiation due to repeat scans. Patients and providers no longer will have to transport digital images on CDs or other tangible media since all the results will be online.

With Dell as a non-exclusive cloud partner, Merge gains access to the computer company's large healthcare salesforce and will be able to offer customers more hosting and financing options. "Many buyers today want a per-month fee," instead of having to shell out a lot of money up front for hardware.

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