The Role of Feature Flagging in the Next Phase of Healthcare Tech

Hospitals and healthcare, in general, are increasingly reliant on software to achieve desired patient outcomes. From patient diagnosis and medical imaging to therapy and patient self-care to data collection and analysis and even hospital management, SaaS has a huge impact which makes it even more reasonable to look at the Healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes relationship. This increased reliance on digital products in patient care means that healthcare providers must be innovative and fundamentally rethink how software solutions are built. Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) are two approaches that have been recently adopted to ensure the necessary software solutions reach doctors and healthcare providers faster. A major challenge in this drive, however, is the need for customization. To improve patient experiences, nearly all solutions that come from healthcare facilities must be customized. Feature flagging proves a strong option in the race to customize medical software products to deliver the best patient outcomes ad experiences.

Healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes: Challenges and Opportunities; A Brief Background

Although continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) tend to work excellently, even in industries as delicate as healthcare, applying CI/CD in healthcare DevOps presents several unique challenges, especially;

1.      Regulatory compliance issues

A significant impediment to CI/CD in healthcare SaaS is regulatory compliance. For obvious reasons, healthcare faces stringent regulation and oversight. Even the industry’s smallest mistakes attract a lot of attention because these mistakes can be the difference between life and death. Waiting for the necessary regulatory evaluation and approval can take ages, thus substantially slow down the software development process. This defeats the purpose of CI/CD.

2.      Data security challenges

Another major impediment to CI/CD in healthcare is data security. This is especially true where cloud-based software solutions are involved. All cloud-based systems have vulnerabilities; there will always be inherent weaknesses in the remote systems that converge at the cloud. Healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes are largely affected by unauthorized access, for instance, is an ever-present security risk. In a recent survey, 42% of respondents said they fear unauthorized access via insecure APIs. About 40% of respondents also highlighted network configuration as a critical concern. Data velocity, privacy, and cybersecurity are the other main security challenges.

Healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes: How Flagging Solves Key CI/CD Challenges

Initially, it might seem impossible to move ahead with CI/CD in healthcare software development with enormous regulatory and security challenges. Until you consider feature flagging, a recent innovation in software development at aimed at making better healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes more realistic. Feature flagging is an innovative approach to software development that attempts to provide an alternative to maintaining multiple branches in source code. Essentially, the feature allows developers to hide, enable, or disable certain (selected) features during runtime. Healthcare digital transformationA key advantage of feature flagging is that it allows faster software deployment. If one or more software product features aren’t ready for use at the roll-out, such parts are turned off on initial deployment. This ability to toggle on or off certain aspects of a software product can be instrumental in accelerating the deployment of SaaS products within the healthcare industry as it helps users circumvent regulatory and security challenges. Take an example of the rapid rise of telemedicine during the Covid-19 period. Healthcare facilities, doctors, and patients, like everyone else, were forced to adopt the “new normal” of virtual interactions. Unfortunately, adopting video/chat and other virtual interaction technologies in healthcare isn’t as simple as other industries. Indeed, some interactive solutions that didn’t need vetting in some sectors are yet to be approved in healthcare. Many teams were forced to run monthly or even quarterly deployment cycles to align deployment efforts with regulatory guidelines and government review boards. Feature flagging would be an excellent solution to this and similar situations. Flagging can help decouple the concepts of “deploy,” “approve,” and “release” to ensure trouble-free CI/CD. For instance, a health facility developing a video conferencing app can proceed as follows;
  1. Build everything as planned, but toggle OFF video conferencing feature for everyone else except internal users (via IP targeting or other technologies).
  2. Once the initial release is done, they can perform live field testing to ascertain that the feature is working as envisioned. They could also use this period to obtain the necessary approvals.
  3. Once step #2 is complete, the facility can move ahead to release the full app with video conferencing toggled ON for both internal and external users.
The best part is that all this can be achieved without the need to redeploy the software. Moreover, the developer can go ahead with any iterative improvements as earlier planned. The persistent security challenges can be resolved by shifting to on-premise development. This approach allows developers to adopt CI/CD cadences and innovate more rapidly without worrying about hackers and other potential cybersecurity risks.

Let’s Wait and See

Already, many healthcare DevOps are working on ways to integrate feature flagging into most SaaS products. But, can flagging become a standard in the industry? We’ll have to wait and see but it’s imperative to get a grasp of the relationship between healthcare digital transformation and patient outcomes.