Telehealth Security: Ensuring Patient Privacy and Data Protection

Despite increasing trust in telemedicine, data breaches are an ever-present risk. The proliferation of online medical information has made it valuable to hackers and cybercriminals.

Healthcare providers need to minimize these risks and protect their patients. To do this, they must implement effective telehealth security measures. Here are some of the key considerations to keep in mind:

HIPAA Compliance

HIPAA regulations are a significant burden for any organization with sensitive patient or client data, even during normal business operations. However, during a national public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare organizations must change their usual operating procedures and workflows, reconfigure hospitals to segregate patients properly, open testing centers outside their usual facilities, work with a multitude of new partners and vendors, and rapidly expand telehealth services and remote care. This extra workload makes staying HIPAA-compliant all the more difficult.

National guidelines for healthcare organizations’ use and disclosure of patients’ personal information are laid forth in the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rule. The regulations compel companies to put administrative, physical, and technical protections in place to prevent unauthorized access, use, disclosure, or alteration of ePHI (electronically protected health information).

Technical safeguards include measures to ensure that ePHI can only be accessed by authorized individuals, including the implementation of access controls such as unique user IDs and passwords, encryption tools for data at rest and in transit, regular software patches, and monitoring of network activity to identify unauthorized access or breach attempts. The rules also require a clear process for addressing breaches and notification to affected individuals and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Noncompliance with HIPAA rules can result in civil and criminal penalties for any entity that obtains, uses, or discloses ePHI without authorization. This includes the unauthorized acquisition, access, or disclosure of personal medical records, which can damage an individual’s reputation, cause financial losses for the company, and disrupt business activities.

End-to-End Encryption

End-to-end encryption keeps data encrypted on devices while in transit. This protects against hackers from intercepting data and prevents law enforcement or intelligence agencies from accessing evidence when conducting a criminal investigation. This is a major hindrance to public safety and national security and is used by authoritarian regimes to control the internet and erode digital freedoms.

This technology, like provides, is utilized by several healthcare services, enabling patients and clinicians to speak in secret without worrying about prying eyes. Patients need to understand how these platforms collect, store, and share data so they can make informed decisions about which services to utilize.

Some telehealth apps and home medical devices have built-in features that transmit sensitive patient information, including their location, social interactions with family members, and other activities they prefer to keep private. Patients must review and agree to privacy policies before using these devices. They can be susceptible to medical fraud and targeted advertising if they don’t.

A reputable telehealth cybersecurity consultant can evaluate the systems in place to identify potential risks and provide recommendations for improvement. They can help train staff to detect suspicious emails, spam calls, and bad websites so they don’t become victims of cyberattacks or data breaches. They can also teach employees to create strong passwords and regularly update them to stay strong and secure.

Strong Authentication

Patients engaging with physicians via telehealth must be positively identified before a video conference can begin. Otherwise, the data transmitted during the call can be captured by hackers as it travels over the internet. This information can be used for ransomware attacks or to access patient records and diagnoses.

In addition to protecting transmissions, strong authentication protects from unauthorized data access by employees or third parties. For instance, it prevents credential phishing and impersonation due to lapses in user education. While a good education can help reduce the risk of these cyberattacks, a stronger security protocol can be put in place that requires a user to verify their identity multiple times.

To ensure telehealth security, healthcare organizations should incorporate telemedicine into their privacy and security policies and procedures and include it in their annual security risk assessment and business associate agreements with vendors. In addition, workforce members tasked with telehealth usage should receive regular training on privacy and security risks. This training can be as short as 10-15 minutes per month and helps keep the topic in mind for workers while fostering a culture prioritizing telehealth privacy and security.

Biometric Authentication

A biometrics authentication system captures a person’s physical or behavioral characteristics and converts them into digital data. These features are unique to the individual and serve as a secure alternative to pin codes, passwords, and knowledge-based authentication. The technology can also recognize a returning user by comparing the captured data with existing records in a database.

For example, in a fingerprint or iris scan, the data is stored in a database as a template that can be verified each time a patient attempts to access healthcare systems and devices. By preventing unauthorized staff members from accessing a patient’s medical information, biometric authentication protects against security threats like identity theft.

While biometrics can potentially improve telehealth security, federal regulators, lawmakers, standards-setting organizations, healthcare providers, and technology developers must work together to craft secure, interoperable, and equitable solutions. In particular, they should ensure that proprietary templates do not hinder biometrics-enhanced patient matching and that all stakeholders agree on technical standards for capturing, storing, and exchanging these data sets.

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