5 Challenges & Solutions to Protecting Patient Information in the Age of Telehealth

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Doctor conducting consultation online. The rise of remote options is affecting virtually every aspect of modern life. This growing trend of remote options was already on a rapid upward trajectory, but has been further bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is no exception to this rule. Telehealth is a particularly useful application of remote interaction, as it allows for more convenient check-ins, as well as social distancing options for patients with communicable illnesses.  However, there are also potential downsides to telehealth. Most notably, there are many concerns regarding security and privacy, especially considering the sensitive nature of medical information, and the need for all devices and data exchanges to abide by the core rules of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). As such, healthcare professionals must take appropriate precautions when implementing telehealth solutions. 

Challenge #1: Securing Telehealth Appointments

Cybersecurity risks are always changing, and therefore, healthcare professionals must update their security protocols on an ongoing basis to maintain a high level of security. However, there are some common cybersecurity risks associated with telehealth meetings that should be addressed as a baseline of security. One of these risks is the potential that a malicious party could gain access to the video conference itself, or any information shared during the appointment. 

Solution: Best Practices for Secure Video Calls

Some of the best measures you can take to secure a video conference include:

  • Password protection;
  • A secure Wi-Fi network;
  • Encryption protection for software and hardware;
  • A secure video conferencing platform.

Challenge #2: Sharing Patient Information 

Sensitive information can be hijacked as it is moved between parties. It is often necessary for patients to send sensitive information to their doctor, or for healthcare professionals to send relevant patient information amongst themselves to collaborate on care. While options like texting or private messaging can be a quick and easy way to transmit information, it is not necessarily the most secure, and conventional texting platforms may even violate HIPAA standards

Solution: Communication Protocols and Patient Education

As it pertains to the transmission of patient information between healthcare providers, exposure of information to malicious parties can largely be avoided through the implementation of strict protocols for how patient information is shared. These policies should limit the transmission of patient information to specific platforms and channels, as well as limit who has access to sensitive information. These protocols should supplement those that healthcare providers are already legally required to observe due to HIPAA.  Another way that sensitive medical information can be intercepted during transmission is as it is being sent from the patient to their doctor. Therefore, it is imperative that healthcare professionals educate end-users; address the risks of sending such information, provide detailed instructions on how to send the information, and explain how they can access it safely on their end. 

Challenge #3: Protecting Stored Data

Sensitive information isn't only at risk of exposure during transmission. It can also be accessed by malicious parties as it is stored in a database. It is important to keep in mind that while security breaches can occur remotely, they can also occur as a result of direct access to the information, such as in the case of interference from a disgruntled employee. Therefore, it is the responsibility of healthcare professionals to take serious precautions against a data breach through any avenue. 

Solution: Security Best Practices

Steps you can take to secure stored information include:

  • Destruction of information that is not needed;
  • Proper training for employees with access to the information;
  • Regular software updates;
  • Understanding of the cybersecurity landscape;
  • Secure software and hardware;
  • Management of mobile devices;
  • Ongoing monitoring of activity from your IT team or cloud-based monitoring services.

Challenge #4: Changing Privacy Laws & Requirements

Currently, the major law that governs patient privacy in the U.S. is HIPAA. However, healthcare professionals need to keep in mind that laws and regulations for data security in the healthcare industry are subject to change, especially in light of the constantly evolving landscape of remote interactions. Many societies throughout the world have stricter laws regarding the storage of sensitive consumer information (e.g. the GDPR in the E.U.), and there are ongoing conversations in the U.S. to similarly fortify data security regulations. It is also important to note that some laws and regulations may be specific to a certain area or industry, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

Solution: Ongoing Training

The best way to manage this constantly changing security landscape is to stay informed about proposed laws and regulations, and to provide ongoing training to employees and partners as it becomes necessary. This training should include anyone who accesses or manages patient information, from healthcare workers to business associates It may also be helpful to stay ahead of the curve as it pertains to security protocols and employee training. Laws and regulations are the minimum requirements, and it is in your best interest to go above and beyond just avoiding common regulatory violations when it comes to something as important as protecting patient information. Furthermore, if you anticipate changing regulations and prepare for them early, it may make the transition easier. 

Challenge #5: Evolving Technology

The cybersecurity landscape isn’t the only constantly evolving component of this issue. The technology involved is also constantly evolving. The use of new hardware and software can be a huge boon to the future of privacy. However, it can be more of a vulnerability than an asset if it is not implemented correctly, or if employees don't know how to use it properly.

Solution: Stay Updated

It is vital that when you update the hardware and software you use, you ensure that you understand how to implement it properly and that it can integrate properly with any other systems that are in use. It may even be beneficial to consult relevant IT professionals to better understand the proper setup and use of the systems. This may involve the need to update older, complementary systems, or to provide your employees with further training.