In the 1950s, the health care industry was at the forefront in utilization of new technologies to automate standardized and repetitive tasks related to management of patient data. The 1980s saw the development of IT infrastructure that facilitated a further shift of operations into the digital world.
Today, modern health care systems function primarily in the digital world with enterprise-level cloud solutions allowing easy sharing and dissemination of patient information through the internet. Patients can access reports and test results through cloud-based apps. Doctors can interact with patients through mobile video conferences. Doctors offering a second opinion can access all relevant records of the patient through digital devices to offer an informed opinion about the suggested treatment.
Challenges involved in digital health care
While digital technology facilitates greater accessibility of data and more convenient access to health care products and services, it creates some unique challenges as far as patient data security is concerned. In the past, only physical removal of private and confidential patient data could lead to its dissemination in the public. Today, with digitised information being shared over the internet, the data can be stolen and made public by hackers located in another country or even another continent.
Recognizing this challenge, modern health care institutions rely on data access restrictions, encryption of data, regulation of use of portable storage devices, and other online security measures and tactics to minimize risk of leakage of patient data. Institutions rely on security technologies like OpenSSL to ensure the data cannot be accessed or otherwise tampered with when it is being transmitted over the internet.
Instances of breach of confidentiality
Despite these steps, data breaches have occurred in the past with alarming consequences. Improper implementation of security rules and regulations has resulted in disgruntled employees stealing private data from patients’ medical records. There have been instances where medical records were emailed to hundreds of people due to an administrative mistake by careless employees.
Instances of vulnerabilities like Heartbleed in OpenSSL protocols allow hackers to gain backdoor entry into supposedly secure systems. Further, loss of smartphones with health-apps installed on them or loss of laptops and other digital devices containing sensitive patient information may result in private data becoming public.
Consequences of leakage of private medical data
In a world where a single tweet or FB post is enough to disseminate information all over the world in a span of few seconds, leakage of private medical data can have disastrous consequences. A victim of such a breach of confidentiality may face the following problems:
- Social embarrassment resulting from private information about ailments and diseases becoming public.
- Difficulty in getting promotions or new jobs due to the leakage of health-related details.
- Increase in cost of medical insurance
- Complications in the victim’s marriage, and even possibility of issues in divorce or custody proceedings.
For health care institutions, such leakage can result in severe loss of credibility along with the devastating financial consequences of lawsuits seeking compensation for the damage caused by leakage of the data.
The most significant challenge facing the health care industry
Unlike leakage of financial data where the loss can be quantified, the consequences of leakage of private medical data can affect the victim for a long time in the future. Further, hackers may move beyond mere theft and try to tamper with the data. Such a security breach can raise questions on the reliability of all records, tests, and results stored by the institution.
Combined with an epidemic or pandemic, such a breach can have devastating consequences that may raise doubts on the modern health care setup as a whole. While one cannot simply stop using digital technologies, it is imperative for institutions to come up with failsafe and foolproof security measures that will ensure individual breaches do not lead to doubts about the credibility of the system as a whole.
Importance of effective safeguards
Health care institutions cannot afford to adopt a trial-and-error method as far as patient data security is concerned. Apart from reliance on the best and safest technologies to safeguard the data, institutions must invest in creating the right attitude towards data security amongst its employees. Further, health care institutions will also have to ensure patients don’t create security risks due to their carelessness.
While institutions may not be to blame for the mistakes of the patient, the consequences of leakage of data and failure of established security measures will have to be borne by all concerned parties including hospitals and medical institutions.
Every human being has a fundamental right to privacy insofar as medical and health-related data is concerned. The integration of digital services into modern health care will not yield benefits unless patient data privacy is assured at all times.