How to Analyze Healthcare Data While Preserving Patient Privacy?

Preserving Patient Privacy

Using health data has an enormous positive impact on how healthcare professionals can treat patients, reduce the cost of healthcare, avoid preventable diseases, predict epidemics outcomes and on other aspects of healthcare as well.

However, healthcare providers should keep in mind to use medical data only in such a way that it can preserve patient privacy.

In this article, we will look into how healthcare providers and clinical researchers need to approach patient’s sensitive data to ensure their right to privacy and security in 6 important steps.

What is Patient Privacy and Why Securing Patient Data is Important?

Before we begin, it is important to define patient privacy and understand why is securing patient’s electronic health records (EHR) important.

Patient privacy represents the patient’s right to decide who, how, when and how much can their health data be accessed.

For instance, personal health information (PHI) can only be shared with healthcare providers that can either provide or improve their medical care. That means, that patient’s consent must be obtained before their personal information or patient data can be shared for health research purposes.

Of course, on the other hand, we can’t completely restrict access to sensitive information of individual patients, as this would inevitably cause delays in important medical decisions that doctors need to make and degrade your medical care.

So what are some steps that healthcare professionals should take to ensure the data privacy of their patients?

1) Educate the Healthcare Staff in Data Security

Doctors and other healthcare staff that may have access to your medical data are understandably more concerned as to how your health data can help them better assess your situation and give you the treatment that will lead to your recovery than they are about data security or data privacy.

Because of this, the healthcare industry is often a prime target for a cyberattacker who can obtain patient information, which in turn leads to severe consequences for the healthcare organization, both financially and in reputation.

Of course, a lot cheaper way to deal with this problem would be to educate the healthcare professionals on how to handle patient data in a way that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

2) Be Clear On Who has Access to Patient’s Health Data

Access to patient data and EHR should be restricted to only those that actually need it to perform their job.

As such, in order to protect patient’s data privacy and security, access to medical records should be given to only people who can validate through multi-factor authentication (MFA) that they are authorized to do so.

The MFA would then only allow access if two or more validation methods can be provided”

  1. Something only an authorized person has (physical card or key)
  2. Something only an authorized person knows (PIN or password)
  3. Something unique to the authorized person (biometrics)

3) Log and Monitor Access to Electronic Health Records

An important question to answer as we can see, when it comes to the patient electronic health records is who has access to them. This is something that you should strictly monitor and log.

That way, when a data breach occurs, you will have a better chance at discovering the entry point, cause, evaluate the damage made and finally, take the necessary steps to mitigate any damage.

4) Secure Mobile Devices Used by Healthcare Providers

Even today, when almost everyone has at least one smartphone, doctors and nurses working in a hospital often rely on pagers.

In fact, according to one study made in 3 different medical rotations and a total of 1252 pages or “beeps”. residents there were pages 22.4 times per day on average and up to 50 times per day.

There is a practical reason for this.

Many hospitals have a WiFi dead zone where the regular cellphone or Internet signal can’t reach. However, pagers work with FM radio signals so they can receive messages.

Even though the pager is a very old technology, an encrypted pager is actually less hackable than a modern smartphone, more reliable (they don’t rely on the cellular network) and are HIPAA-compliant.

Of course, certain security measures should be taken to ensure that patient records don’t fall into the wrong hands:

  1. Educating the medical residents on the best practices when using mobile devices, especially when it comes to data sharing
  2. Making sure they keep their mobile devices, the operating system and software updated
  3. Using end-to-end encrypyion when data sharing, whether we’re talking about email or instant messaging. This includes data both in transit and at rest.
  4. Enabling remote lock and wipe ability on devices in case they get lost or stolen
  5. Using strong passwords and MFA

5) Make Sure that 3rd Party Providers Also Follow Strict Data Security and Compliance Guidelines

Patient records are often shared between different providers and covered entities. When the data travels from one provider to the other, there is always a risk that it might get intercepted or that the other side did not safely store the data collected.

This is why you should always ensure any provider and covered entity that you share patient data are also doing their part to ensure data security.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) has strict guidelines in its HIPAA Omnibus Rule when it comes to data sharing, so make sure that these are followed closely by partners.

6) Perform Regular Security Analysis and Risk Assessment

Finally, never expect that once you put certain measures in place they will work forever.

Instead, you should perform a regular risk assessment and conduct security analysis to identify weak points and vulnerabilities in your organization that could lead to attacks and data breaches.

Such evaluation and analysis should be undertaken on all of the points we mentioned above from ensuring the proper education of your medical staff, monitoring their access and use of data, encrypting data, to evaluating the security and compliance of 3rd party providers and associates.

Conclusion

Securing patient privacy in the healthcare industry is no small task. This is because medical service suppliers often lack the proper education and understanding that the way they collect and share patient data can lead to attacks by cybercriminals.

We hope this article has helped you better understand the importance of data security when it comes to patient data and protected health information (PHI) and has given you some patient privacy-preserving methods that you can implement in your organization as well.