Convenience Over Security: Mobile Healthcare Apps Open Up Fresh Risks to Patients’ Data

Mobile Healthcare Apps

Technology has enabled the healthcare industry to make rapid advancements. Every day you hear about a new technology that is disrupting the market and creating waves in the healthcare industry. The industry is being digitalized to decrease the load on waiting rooms in an effort to sort the patient queries at home. This has given birth to mobile healthcare apps that are a great way for patients to keep track of worrisome symptoms. Most apps are also equipped with the ability to have live video calls with the relevant healthcare practitioner. In more critical cases, the patient can have a face to face meeting with the doctor.  

With the healthcare staff now more at ease, they can shift their focus to the more critical patients who are more in need of their attention. There are several other advantages of healthcare application that we could go on and on about, but this article is about the flip side of the technology. An aspect that most of us tend to oversee is that mobile healthcare apps pose a great threat to the patient’s data. 

Before you download a healthcare application for yourself or your loved ones, you must be aware of the terms and conditions that are surrounding the patient data usage. According to a study in which about 20 mobile applications were analyzed, it was found that the apps withhold several security flaws that could result in a breach of customer data. Security flaws could be either poor programming practices, the inability to encrypt data or lack of security measure. Some of the reasons are discussed in detail below:

Why are Mobile Healthcare Applications Unsafe?

1. The Use of Healthcare Applications Does Not Come Under HIPAA

Did you know that the use of telehealth services does not directly come under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act 1996 (HIPAA)? This act is a rule to avoid disclosure of customer’s personal and sensitive health information. The rule established by the US is applicable to certain entities, which include healthcare providers, entities who provide healthcare plans, clearinghouses that receive information from a 3rd person or party, and business associates. The entities mentioned do not have the right to disclose the patient’s health information without their consent and will be penalized under the terms of the act if they do so. 

It may come across as alarming that telehealth services fall outside this act. Therefore, any sensitive or personal information that you enter in your mobile application can be used by a third party with or without your consent! Although there is yet not enough research done to prove that the disclosure of patient’s information could cause direct harm to the patient, there are several demonstrations that have proved this is a valid point. Another issue that we face with healthcare applications is that individuals, in most cases, are unable to request the information that we feed into the applications. 

2. Poor Programming Practices

Since the applications are not regulated under any authority. There is a high chance that the apps are poorly programmed by amateur programmers. Due to this reason, the app can be vulnerable to data and eventually putting the customer data to risk as well. The providers of healthcare apps can try to limit the data by accepting only that which comes from registered software. App providers should also ensure that they are following secure coding practices that make their codes secure and safe from hackers. Programmers must ensure that their applications are within the compliance and the rules set by the country. This applies to all kinds of mobile apps regardless of their functionality. A reliable safety measure is to model a contingency plan of all external threats that the system may face. This can help keep in check of any threat that is faced 

3. Lack of Encryption of Sensitive Information

Data that is fed into your computer or mobile application is essentially encrypted when it is transferred to cloud storage or whichever kind of storage that you have allocated. Some app developers make the mistake of uploading the data without encrypting it. Plain text that is uploaded is especially vulnerable and easy to hack. It is better to use a reliable safety protocol such as Transport Layer Security (TLS) to be able to encrypt the data before storage successfully. If you are not aware of the process of encryption, you can hire experts in the field to help you with the job. What is more, ensure that you have a stable and fast internet connection. An unstable connection can make it easy for hackers to hack into your system. Using good quality hardware such as coaxial cables and fiber optics along with a reliable service provider is essential.

4. Data at Risk If the Device Is Stolen or Lost

Lost or stolen devices pose a huge security risk to the owners. Their data is left unprotected and in the hands of hackers who may use it for their own purposes. Regardless of sophisticated technology, there are still security flaws in devices that leave the data vulnerable and easy for hackers to get into it. Most of us roam around with literally everything on our mobile phones. As convenient as it may be, it can have a disastrous outcome. More than half of health-related data breaches occur through stolen or lost devices. You can use a PIN to protect your data and make sure that all your health apps are up-to-date. Usually, old versions of applications contain bugs that might create a security concern. 

5. Laws/Acts Outside HIPAA Do Not Cover Health Apps Either

Unfortunately, the laws that are even outside the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act 1996 (HIPAA) do not cover telehealth. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act 1986 does prevent the unauthorized usage of customer information, but the terms and conditions do not apply to patient information and those involving health care applications. The medical devices that are enabled through the network do not come under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act 2009. Similar to the HIPAA act, the HITECH Act does not cover particularly those entities that are providers of health care applications. 

Therefore, for the safety of customer health information, it is necessary to have a registered act or a body that ensures that all healthcare applications are under compliance with one single entity. Another issue that users of these health apps face is that there is no guarantee that the diagnosis has been made correctly. Due to the medium used, there may be some error recorded or the patient would have wrongly quoted a symptom. In either of these cases, the app provider is in no way responsible. This factor seriously puts the reliability of healthcare apps under doubt. 

What to Do in Case of a Privacy Breach?

If telehealth does not come under HIPAA, it does not mean that you cannot take action in case of a privacy breach. Since most privacy breaches take place through stolen or lost mobile devices, the first thing that you can do is erase all data through a remote wiping feature. Most mobile devices can install a remote wiping feature or activate one on their mobile phones. If you are using a remote wiping feature, you will need the same software on your laptop or PC as well. This software will help you operate your mobile device through your laptop. 

There are also legal steps that you can follow in case your data has been breached. Many countries have SOP’s in case a person’s privacy has been violated in which both the parties are thoroughly investigated, and the scope of the breach is analyzed. Depending on the magnitude of the risk that the consumer is facing, legal action can be taken accordingly, and compensation granted to the rightful party. 

Wrapping It Up

As many conveniences as these applications provide, there is a substantial amount of risk involved as well. It’s the same for other pieces of technology as well. The bottom line is that healthcare providers should be able to establish a protocol that helps them encrypt data in an efficient manner. The back-end code should ensure enough security so that the device cannot be jail-broken. Moreover, the code needs to be maintained from time to time to ensure that it is working in its best possible state.

As mentioned above, mobile healthcare needs form a compliance mechanism that ensures that all application developers create apps that fall under the same standard and are wary of keeping customer information under strict confidentiality. It is also best to limit the number of applications that are connected and picking on your health information. On the consumer end, it is advised to find out the workings of the application before customers feed their data into them. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the consumer as well as the provider to ensure the safety and protection of sensitive consumer data and health information. A combination of the measures mentioned above can help make telehealth safer and more user friendly.

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