Using AWS has made it possible for us to engage our patients more directly—and offer them a reliable and efficient experience.
Christine M. Swearingen Executive Vice President, Planning, Marketing, and Community Relations

Founded in 1998, MedStar Health is the largest not-for-profit healthcare provider in Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region. The system, which is recognized both regionally and nationally for medical care excellence, includes 10 hospitals and more than 250 outpatient care sites. It’s also home to the MedStar Health Research Institute and the MedStar Institute for Innovation. MedStar’s 30,000 associates and 6,000 affiliated physicians provide primary care, urgent care, and home healthcare services across the region. In 2014, MedStar had more than 200,000 inpatient stays and 4 million outpatient visits.

To support its patient-first philosophy of care, MedStar Health wanted to leverage digital technology to deliver healthcare services more efficiently to its customers. As a first step, the organization decided to combine its disparate websites into a single patient engagement portal that enables patients to easily search for doctors, medical services, and locations across its entire system—and to request appointments over the web. The long-term plan is to offer a full range of mobile, social, and web-based services that transform the patient experience.

MedStar initially decided to build its portal in a hosted environment; however, the results were disappointing. The website was slow and crashed often, leading to lost appointments and upset customers. And maintaining the website was costing MedStar thousands of dollars every month. “We ended up with a website that wasn’t consumer-friendly, and it was hurting our business and our reputation,” says Christine M. Swearingen, executive vice president of planning, marketing, and community relations for MedStar Health. “After about six months, we made the difficult decision to abandon the portal and start over.”

In 2014, MedStar Health enlisted IT consulting firm Impact Makers to rebuild its web portal. The goal was to combine MedStar’s 102 websites into a single, searchable destination with a common look and feel. MedStar decided to implement its new portal in the cloud because of the scalability offered there. And after considering several cloud-services vendors, Impact Makers chose Amazon Web Services (AWS) because of its auto-scaling capabilities, the cost savings it provided, and the comprehensiveness of the solution. “With other vendors, we would have had to cobble together several technologies from different providers into one cloud platform,” says Michael Ruiz, MedStar’s chief digital officer. “AWS provided a complete set of tools that allowed us to do everything under one umbrella, which made the integration a lot smoother.”

Impact Makers built the website using a wide range of AWS products. The portal is launched in an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), which is a logically isolated section of the AWS cloud. Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) offers persistent block-level storage volumes for use with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances, while Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) provides a fully redundant infrastructure for storing and retrieving data. Amazon CloudSearch is the search tool that allows users to search for content and doctors, Amazon CloudWatch collects and tracks portal metrics, and Amazon ElastiCache scales distributed in-memory cache environments in the AWS cloud. “Running our website in the cloud on AWS has been a great experience,” Ruiz says. “We’ve been able to accomplish our goals in the time period that we set out to accomplish them. We wouldn’t have been able to do that in our own datacenter or a hosted environment.”

A subscriber to the Business-level tier of AWS Support, MedStar relied on AWS to validate its architectural configuration and to provide guidance on performance optimization and security. “AWS Support validated our deployment and increased our confidence in its success,” says Ruiz.

With its new website hosted in the AWS cloud, MedStar now offers patients an effective way to search for doctors, services, and locations, and make medical appointments—all from within a single portal. The cost of operating and maintaining the website has declined by more than 40 percent per month. At the same time, downtime has been reduced from 120 minutes to less than 5 minutes per month, while page download times have decreased from an average of 1,500 milliseconds to 120 milliseconds. As a result, patients are spending more time on the website, with fewer people abandoning their searches. “Running our website on AWS has dramatically improved the user experience,” says Swearingen. “Our bounce rate on the website has gone way down, our time on the page has gone way up, and our most recent numbers show that the number of page views is increasing.”

MedStar believes the improved digital experience will be more satisfying for current patients and customers and eventually will open pathways to new customers. And over the long term, AWS offers MedStar a platform for growth as it positions itself as a digital healthcare leader. “Using AWS has made it possible for us to engage our patients more directly—and offer them a reliable and efficient experience,” says Swearingen. “And we now have the foundation for creating mobile, social, and web services that dramatically improve every aspect of the healthcare experience.”

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