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Thought Leaders In Cloud Computing: Dr. Marcos Athanasoulis, Harvard Medical School (Part 1)

Posted on Saturday, Sep 4th 2010

By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini

Healthcare and life sciences is a vertical that can gain tremendously from technological paradigm shifts such as cloud computing. Despite obvious deterrents in the form of data security and privacy, HIPPA, and the sheer volume of unstructured data in terms of storage, management, analytics and research, there is no dearth of opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs who are looking to overcome challenges and create solutions to benefit not only the medicos but also researchers dealing with complex life science scenarios.

Cloud computing forerunners such as Amazon and Microsoft have been active in this vertical long before the term cloud computing became popular. IBM backed genomic research and Intel supported Dossia; both are are examples of companies and consortia which have successfully brought some of the high performance grid use cases into the cloud fold to take advantage of the elasticity, on-demand model, and the cost-effective information technology offered by cloud computing.

Beyond the United States, there are companies such as Cisco that are actively involved in healthcare and e-governance initiatives in India, where they are considering deploying cloud computing-based solutions. The Chinese healthcare spending increased by 50% in 2009, with figures reaching $18 billion and the forecast for 2010 at $20 billion. IBM is collaborating with China for healthcare and e-governance by building a smart cloud. In Europe, cloud computing adoption in healthcare is nascent. A survey indicated only 6.5% of the European healthcare industry had cloud computing on its strategy list given concerns about data security. There is still a long way to go in the healthcare industry when it comes to cloud computing, but the opportunities seem aplenty.

The trend that we spot in healthcare vertical is that private clouds will have a big role to play given the security and legal considerations involved in dealing with healthcare data. Life sciences would be more open to cloud bursting using public clouds once data security and access speed issues are dealt with and once interfaces become easier for the researchers. The bridging of private and public cloud seems to be another area that is a blue-sky market for healthcare, especially in life science research.

Unlike the physical or material sciences, where collaboration is common across the globe, healthcare still operates in silos. A big hurdle to cloud adoption in the healthcare vertical and for effective collaboration in medical research space is the absence of suitable solutions that can run within both private and public clouds such that a medical researcher does not have to deal with low-level computing and programming but can use interfaces that are more closer to day-to-day activities, be they in healthcare or medical research.

In this interview with Dr. Marcos Athanasoulis, Sramana digs into what Harvard Medical School has been doing in terms of cloud computing adoption and discovers plenty of areas ripe for innovation and entrepreneurship. Read on for more here.

Dr. Marcos Athanasoulis serves as the director of research, information technology (IT) and client services for Harvard Medical School, where he leads the development of high- performance computing (HPC) infrastructure and IT support services to support biomedical and healthcare research. During his career, Dr. Athanasoulis has worked in both the public and private sector to improve the quality and efficiency of research and healthcare through information systems.

Prior to joining Harvard Medical School, Dr. Athanasoulis was the vice president of product development at RelayHealth Corporation, Inc., where he oversaw the continuing development and implementation of an advanced patient-provider communication system. As chief technology officer at, he led the development of health information systems for more than one hundred hospitals and health plans as well as a consumer portal that served millions of consumers. Dr. Athanasoulis has consulted for a variety of health care organizations including the Koop Foundation, the California Department of Health Services, San Francisco General Hospital, Alta Bates Hospital, the Healthy Communities Foundation, and the UC Berkeley Wellness Guide. He holds a master’s degree in epidemiology and bio-statistics and a doctorate in health informatics, both from UC Berkeley.

Harvard Medical School, Information Technology Department

The Harvard Medical School (HMS) Information Technology Department works collaboratively with the Harvard Medical Community across the university to provide information management and technology solutions to HMS. Its mission is to allow for the timely, personalized, and secure communication of relevant information content, optimization of key administrative functions and infrastructure components, management, sharing and integration of knowledge resources across the Harvard Medical Community.

SM: Doctor, as we begin, can you give a bit of background about your realm of responsibilities at HMS? Do you deal with the education side, or do you also deal with the hospital?

MA: Sure, let me explain. Currently at HMS, I am the director of research IT, which means that I oversee all of the requirements of computing, cluster and grid computing. I am also the director of client services division, which is the technical support services for all of the research departments.

Now, the business of HMS really is that we do research. I am also the director of student computing, which includes computing facilities for the students such as computing rooms etc. HMS is a bit unusual in the sense that it does not have any hospital facility within – we don’t operate or run any clinics. Most medical schools do. So there are many hospitals that are all affiliated with HMS. There are many of the hospital folks who are on the faculty of Harvard, but we don’t run the hospital or clinic. I do interface with a lot of hospital folks but don’t run any clinical systems at Harvard. It is just the basic life sciences and the various sciences that happen at HMS.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Thought Leaders In Cloud Computing: Dr. Marcos Athanasoulis, Harvard Medical School
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