Healthcare in a virtual environment

(this was published in the October edition of St Louis Metropolitan Medicine and the February issue of the PAHCOM Journal.)

“Virtualization” runs all computing in the medical office through a central computer with office staff connected from their workstations or mobile devices; benefits include greater security, efficiency and energy savings

Do you get tired of carrying your laptop with you to access patient data from one exam room to another? Want to gain more productivity from your current server hardware? Worry about securing patient information on your mobile devices and laptops? If so, desktop virtualization could be your answer.

“Virtualization” is a technology enabling you to create multiple “virtual” computers on a single physical machine. When you apply this technology to normal desktop PCs the applications and data are unchained from the physical workstation and moved to a secure datacenter server.  Once desktops are stored at the datacenter they can be accessed by physicians and office staff through “scaled downed” workstations called thin clients. Once virtualized your desktop will follow you wherever you may go.

The health care industry presents a variety of challenges for information technology from securing patient data to complying with regulations to ensuring users have reliable access to network resources. With many applications and users often sharing hardware, the IT staff must balance application interactions with maintaining and securing different user environments. Virtualization brings a proven selection of tools to help solve these challenges.

Virtualization takes hardware and turns it into software. By removing the physical requirement, virtualization can provide many benefits not otherwise possible. Virtual machines can be created or destroyed in minutes, copied, backed up and restored with ease. When combined with management techniques used on physical machines, virtual PCs can be very flexible and portable while maintaining security and retaining application compatibility.

Virtual PCs can be accessed by the users in a variety of ways:

  • Traditional computers using a specific client
  • Thin clients
  • Via a web page

Thin clients (small diskless workstations) are a very popular choice as they have no moving parts and typically use 10% of the electricity and generate 10% of the heat of a regular PC. Thin clients are available from a variety of vendors and may include options such as wireless networking, built-in monitors and touch-screens.

What About Security?

With a virtual PC environment, data remains on the servers – no documents, spreadsheets or even applications exist outside the data center. The virtual environment can be configured to know where the user is accessing the desktop from; allowing different resources to be available depending on the user’s location – a nurse’s station, private office or accessing remotely from home.

For additional security the client can be configured to require two-factor authentication – a security card and a password. With a proximity reader, the user simply needs to remain within a few feet of the device to be able to login, and the client logs out when the user steps away. Combined with location awareness, a publicly available terminal may log users out immediately when they step away from the terminal while a private terminal may remain connected for a period of time.

The User Experience

Physicians, nurses and other health-care providers need a consistent environment with reliable, secure access to their applications and data. A concept called “follow-me-desktop” means that anywhere a user logs on they are presented with the same desktop, files and applications. Traditional and virtual-specific tools are combined to separate the user environment from the underlying operating system. By allowing the user desktop to be as portable as the underlying virtual machine, the virtual machine can be changed, updated and upgraded with minimal disruption to the user.

The user experience can also be localized to the accessing device. Low-cost terminals may be placed in publicly available areas while other environments may have touch-sensitive screens or have greater graphics capabilities for video conferencing. A user can move between those systems, maintaining their same desktop and applications while gaining the benefits of the chosen access point.

Administration Benefits of Virtualization

Desktop administration benefits the most from virtualization with features including golden images and non-persistent desktops. One virtual machine (a golden image) can be built with all applications and settings needed and then duplicated a thousand times with one click. Even better, those thousand machines take up slightly more space that the one original machine – not a thousand times more space.

With non-persistent desktops, each time a user logs in they receive a newly-created virtual machine. Each time a user logs out, that virtual machine is deleted and a new one is created. The result is a new PC each time a user logs in which benefits performance and reliability.

Updates and upgrades are also much easier when there is only one location (the golden image) that needs to be changed in order for all virtual machines to be updated. Backups and disaster recovery are made easier when all of the desktops can be recreated from the golden image, leaving just the application servers and data to be protected.

Bottom Line

Virtualization can be advantageous in larger hospital and health care center facilities with many users as well as in smaller physician offices with fewer users. Bottom line in either scenario, virtual desktops can provide a variety of benefits, including time and cost efficiencies.

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