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The Challenges of Protecting Patient Data With Telemedicine

James Wantuck
James Wantuck

As more appointments and medical records move online, the number of data breaches rises. How can digital healthcare improve security?

Digital healthcare uses technology that allows you to speak with a healthcare provider remotely, access test results online and receive ongoing care via in-home monitoring devices. The telemedicine market is expected to make close to $130.6 billion by 2025. This exponential growth is due to an increased demand for flexible and affordable healthcare, the increased use of smartphones and newly well-developed digital healthcare communication systems. 

Telemedicine has been found to surpass patient expectations when compared to traditional office visits and will continue to grow as more employers start to offer digital healthcare to their employees, and government programs along with private insurers extend medical coverage to online appointments. 

The risks of digital healthcare

But as healthcare goes digital the industry faces challenges regarding the privacy and security of patient information. Data breaches cost the U.S. healthcare industry $5.6 billion every year. On top of that, more than 27 million patient records were affected with an average of at least one health data breach per day in 2016. If the digital healthcare industry wants to continue to grow at its current rate, it needs to be at the forefront of cybersecurity or patients will not feel safe utilizing digital health resources. 

Whether you’re interested in setting your employees up with a digital healthcare plan or you want to know for yourself or your family if digital healthcare is a good option, it’s important to know how digital health platforms are working to keep medical information protected in a world of data breaches and hackers. 

Urgent, primary and mental healthcare go mobile

Want to video chat with a primary care doctor about your sore throat? Interested in speaking with an online psychiatrist about your mental health? Before receiving medical care online you need to ensure the platform you are using complies with privacy regulations and provides a secure network through which you can meet with a doctor, receive medical advice, review prescriptions and check test results. 

Not all digital health platforms are created equal. Before booking an appointment make sure the company states they are HIPAA compliant. HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It was passed in 1996 and established national standards for the flow of healthcare information and the handling of electronic medical records, among other things. 

In order for telemedicine platforms to claim they are HIPPA compliant, they need to not only have a secure platform for interfacing with doctors, receiving test results and storing medical records but they also need to make sure that their doctors are operating with the highest HIPPA practices. HIPPA compliance is a bit more complex for digital healthcare doctors than in-person doctors due to the increased reliance on web services. 

In addition to HIPAA compliance you should check that the company complies with the Security Rule. It took effect in 2003 and modernized the protection of digital medical information. The Security Rule requires digital health companies to meet three different safeguards: administrative, physical and technical. These protections ensure the handling of medical information is secure from employee authorization within the digital healthcare company, to the proper disposal of equipment that may hold personal health information, to the implementation of closed networks or data encryption. 

If you do not see any information about security compliance on the digital health companies homepage then you should be skeptical about the level of security being provided. That said, there are many digital health companies that go above and beyond to ensure they exceed privacy regulations and provide fast and secure digital health services. 


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What do digital healthcare companies do to ensure health data security?

There is a wide range of things healthcare companies do to secure health data, including the following:

  1. Prioritize security across departments. All employees should receive cybersecurity training and frequently update these skills as new security methods are implemented. This includes software and operating system maintenance, the importance of strong passwords and backups, appropriate network access and computer best practices. 

  2. Protect mobile devices. As more doctors see patients through mobile apps, it's crucial that proper encryption methods are utilized to ensure these channels are secure.

  3. Use a firewall. Anything connected to the internet should have a firewall.

  4. Install antivirus software. These programs protect patient information and need to be updated frequently to maintain the highest level of security. 

  5. Restrict access to medical records. The only people who should be able to see patient medical records are doctors and approved persons indicated on the HIPAA forms. 

Is digital healthcare worth it?

The answer to this question may depend on who you are. For those who live in remote areas, those who are low income or uninsured, the elderly and disabled, those taking preventative medications and those struggling with mental health disorders, the benefits of digital healthcare may outway the cybersecurity risks. 

Those living in remote areas, such as the rural South, may be hours away from the nearest healthcare facility. With 100 rural hospitals closing since 2010 and 430 more rural hospital at risk of closing, access to medical care is an issue for many rural Americans. Digital health services provide access to doctors, psychiatrists, prescription medications, follow up care, in-home monitoring and more. For some patients online access can be the difference between receiving care and living with an illness or injury. 

For patients who are low income or uninsured, digital healthcare provides a more affordable option than urgent and emergency care centers. While digital healthcare is not an alternative to emergency care, for those who are not experiencing an emergency it is a great option to access medical care. The average urgent care appointment is $150, compare this to a digital healthcare company such as PlushCare where the uninsured can see a doctor for under $100 and the average insured patient pays just $25.

For the elderly and disabled who may have a hard time leaving their home, have limited access to transportation or require a caregiver to take them to a doctor’s appointment, telemedicine is also incredibly helpful. These groups need more care more often and the convenience of receiving it from the comfort of home cannot be understated. 

The use of digital healthcare is also ideal for anyone who is taking preventative medications and requires occasional check in’s with their healthcare providers for a prescription refill. Increased access to online doctors improves patient outcomes as they can be sure to properly take preventative medications and receive refills on time.

Mental health patients can also benefit from online counseling sessions and access to online psychiatrists. Digital appointments with healthcare professionals are more convenient, especially for patients who may struggle to get to appointments due to disorders such as anxiety and depression. This study showed that patient satisfaction for digital depression treatment was the same as in-person depression treatment. Of course, there are cases when a patient's mental health calls for in-person treatment, but for the average person struggling with a mental health disorder, online services are just as good, if not better, than traditional psychiatry and psychotherapy.

If you do not fall into any of the above categories and you’re still wondering if digital healthcare is a secure option, the best course of action is to give it a try. You can meet with a doctor without handing over your medical records or receiving test results. Just make sure you choose a platform that states it’s HIPAA compliant and your face-to-face with the doctor will be confidential and secure. 

The truth is, online doctor appointments are quickly becoming the norm as more doctors jump on board, offering patients a digital healthcare option. For this trend to continue, digital health companies will need to go beyond complying with industry regulations by leading policy efforts and implementing up to date security measures to ensure personal medical information is secure as technology continues to intersect with healthcare. 

Image Credit: Andrey Shevchuk / Getty Images
James Wantuck
James Wantuck Member
My name is Dr. James Wantuck. I'm the cofounder and Chief Medical Officer of PlushCare. PlushCare is a 4 year old telemedicine company that has served over 100,000 patients. We have a network of 50 doctors, treating patients via face-to-face video calls. It's been a long road to get to where we are today (~$10M in revenue). We started in the back of a dentist's office in San Francisco as a two person team. Today, we have 40+ corporate employees and have scaled 100%+ year over year. I'd love to share my entrepreneurial perspectives and learnings.