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Three steps to telehealth data safety

How to protect sensitive health data and systems against attackers, by Lasse Rousi is the CEO of telehealth firm Medixine.

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During the pandemic, telehealth offered many patients safe, secure, and convenient care in their own homes. By April 2020, the number of people using telehealth was 78 times higher than in February 2020.

One American survey found that 88 per cent of users wanted to continue having their doctor’s appointments and other health-related appointments via digital channels once the pandemic ends.

But as digital healthcare and telehealth services of all kinds become more common, so too does the risk of data breaches and leaks.

When telehealth professionals communicate with patients over unprotected networks, they may be putting essential data at risk.

In late 2020, the Harvard Medical School noted that relaxed restrictions on apps, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and increased use due to the COVID pandemic, posed a considerable data security risk.

But data breaches are not a new threat. In 2015 alone, 193 million personal records were made vulnerable to fraud and identity theft.

In 2020, the world learned of the Vastaamo data leak in Finland. Tens of thousands of patients were affected, and many were even blackmailed and bullied.

Unfortunately, this was not a one-off situation, and private patient information remains very valuable to attackers.

But how can you prepare for cyberattacks and protect your patients?

Always make data security your top priority  

Data security should never be an afterthought. Ensuring the security of a digital healthcare platform begins from its basic design. It should be difficult to disrupt and compromise through attack techniques, such as distributed denial of service.

The popularity of a platform is no guarantee of its security. The recent “Zoombombing” trend illustrates how vulnerable popular software programs can be.

The unpredictable user increase and substandard security features were a recipe for disaster.

Be sure to design or procure bespoke communication tools for data security. External apps pose risks, as the telehealth provider has limited control over data.

But companies using bespoke platforms can train users effectively and collaborate with digital experts.

Develop a systematic risk management strategy 

Tying into the planning phase, any professional healthcare platform developer and provider must sit down and ask questions like what are the risks inherent in this platform, what are the probabilities of those risks being realised, how will we address them now, and what is the response plan if a risk is realised and there is a data breach, a minor one or a significant leak.

But don’t stop with just one risk management plan. As the world evolves, so do the technologies and threats concerning digital healthcare.

Software is continuously updated and new features are added, but cyber attackers are also discovering new techniques and methods.

Revise your risk management and response plans regularly. Preparation is also the best strategy for overcoming disasters and, according to the OECD, maintaining public trust after they happen.

Turn to external auditors to test your platform 

Be humble enough to acknowledge that your expertise is probably not enough. Privacy must be an integral feature of a platform’s design, but implementing this is a big job.

Healthcare professionals must work with external computer protection companies to ensure safety and even source solutions internally.

Large data companies, such as Google, develop cross-functional teams of developers and data experts for better insights.

This approach is crucial for risk assessment. Safe and effective products are often the result of experts aligning goals and sharing knowledge. For instance, we at Medixine turn to external auditors regularly and have used white hat hackers to put our platform through rigorous testing.

Protecting health data is not a one-size-fits-all matter. Digital healthcare service providers should always tailor their cybersecurity measures to their platforms and also ensure compatibility with their clients’ data security measures.

By utilising the help of third-party experts, working with superior technology, and developing a solid strategy plan, we can keep patients safe, healthy, and happy.

Lasse Rousi is the CEO of Medixine, a Finland-based telehealth specialist. 

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