We live in a digital health age. An increasing number of healthcare institutions are storing and processing vast volumes of data to advance their healthcare practices. Protecting this data, however, has been a challenging requirement due to its high dependence on sensitive information, which can trigger data security problems. In this context, the growing digitalization of patient health data raises new privacy threats about information security. We discuss the digitization of healthcare, the main challenges it poses to healthcare data, and best practices for securing healthcare data.
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What is digital health?
We have already entered the 4th Industrial Revolution that is unlike anything humankind has experienced before. It appears to be only the beginning of a revolution that is going to fundamentally transform the way we live. Healthcare is becoming increasingly digitalized, thanks to the accelerating pace of technological developments. At the same time, all the phases of data, including security and privacy, will come under greater scrutiny.
Simply put, digital health is generally considered to be healthcare practices utilizing information and communication technologies. It comprises a broad spectrum of digital processes in diagnosis, monitoring, as well as treatment of patient’s health. Now the healthcare organizations implement internet-enabled healthcare platforms to provide health content. But, the sharing of personal health data among health service providers, not only health professionals but also patients are accompanied by the issue of sensitivity of personal data.
Why does digital health matter?
Firstly, we would like to mention that the digitalization of healthcare isn’t a goal in itself. Instead, it must be regarded as an instrument that may potentially contribute to the overall status of healthcare delivery and health systems.
Healthcare digitization has the capability to add new dimensions to existing healthcare goals. In that respect, the objectives of digital health are diverse: preventative medicine, disease prevention, cost reduction, medical research are only a few examples of increased possibilities digitalization may present.
In the end, achieving these objectives delivers benefits to both healthcare institutions and to their patients. Digital health definitely matters – we all are going to benefit from it.
Healthcare data privacy and security
With the introduction of computing and wireless communication technologies healthcare industry has changed a lot. Now applications are now running in smartphones and are using sensor networks to monitor patients in real-time. Healthcare professionals are able to access all the needed health data through computer interfaces. We can say that all these development and innovations help healthcare organizations to extensively improve the quality of healthcare.
On the other hand, the security risks within healthcare increased proportionately. Because the patient data is expanding, which includes clinical information or more personal data from different digital devices or apps. This means that massive amounts of data must be securely processed. The graph below clearly demonstrates the growing volumes of healthcare data over the 7 years.
Given the growth of healthcare data, it isn’t so difficult to think of potential hurdles. Before healthcare institutions can fully exploit the power of their health data, they must conquer the challenges of healthcare data protection.
There are different threats to healthcare patient data privacy. For example, unintentional staff actions compromise patient data privacy. This illegitimate access to healthcare data poses pose different levels of risk to an organization requiring different prevention strategies. Regarding the motives behind these threats, they could be economic or non-economic.
Another threat is accidental disclosure by the healthcare staff. It occurs when healthcare personnel unintentionally disclose patient data to others via e-mail messages that are sent to the wrong address. Insider curiosity can also pose a security threat for healthcare data. The personnel with access may retrieve patient data for their own purpose.
Health data as a powerful force
There are several trends that are truly shaping the future of healthcare. Within the last few years, we have seen significant advances in production as well as the collection of data. Healthcare organizations, like other sectors, store personal health data about their employees, suppliers as well as third-party contacts.
Interestingly, the growth we observe in healthcare has the potential to turn the industry upside down in new ways that have never imagined before. Data is changing the whole healthcare ecosystem. For example, access to new data sets is fueling drug discovery. Besides that, patient data enables doctors to make better patient predictive models to more efficiently diagnose and treat disease.
Given the fact that the future of healthcare is truly promising, healthcare organizations should take a proactive approach to utilize best practices for their healthcare security. These practices may range from educating their healthcare staff about patient data privacy to monitoring which users are handling what information.
3 best practices to secure healthcare patient data
When health data breaches happen, they can have serious legal and financial consequences for healthcare organizations. Therefore, it’s the healthcare organizations’ responsibility to carefully handle patients’ health data to protect their privacy and ensure patient safety.
Hereby, we share 3 best practices for healthcare organizations to secure healthcare data.
1. Implement risk assessments
Risk assessment for healthcare organizations is the combined efforts of monitoring, identifying, and minimizing the risk to the organization itself, patients, staff, and other organizational assets.
There are actually many risks to consider, such as Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDOS) attacks, which disrupt normal traffic of a server or a network. Other risks ransomware threats which encrypt all the files on the infected network. Once the hackers encrypt the network, the ransomware requires a ransom to decrypt the files.
The organization first must identify every potential risk, and then establish a comprehensive mitigation plan to close the gaps. Potential risks may change over time, so risk assessment must be executed on an ongoing basis.
2. Provide ongoing training for staff
Cyber security must become a critical strategic asset to any organization, including healthcare organizations. Sometimes organizations forget how important it’s to educate staff on specific matters like healthcare data privacy.
Regular training will certainly make staff well-informed about good security and privacy practices. In that way, they would also know how to respond appropriately in case something goes wrong. We believe that continuing professional training will directly and positively contribute to overall patient service.
3. Formulate a data breach response plan
The response plan intends to minimize reduce the exposures to the organization, and its employees, that arise out of a cyber incident. This plan helps healthcare organizations to intelligently and quickly assess the nature as well as the scope of an incident, and thus detect what information has been misused. Then, it’s possible to control the incident to stop further unauthorized access.
The effects of a data breach can result in serious harm to not only the health provider but also to its patients. That is why healthcare organizations are responsible for making sure that they are taking all necessary to secure personal information.
Final words about healthcare patient data privacy
Digital health is indeed an important trend to which healthcare organizations are giving special importance. The advancements in information technology yield great promise. The opportunities offered by healthcare data are unlimited. But this massive amount of sensitive and valuable data presents significant privacy and security issues for healthcare organizations.
Please remember that making sure that healthcare patient data is processed lawfully, and is kept safe, is a common value of everyone involved in healthcare. Taking the above-mentioned factors and best practices into account will help healthcare organizations to prevent likely cyber threats from intruders.