One of the most pressing issues of our time is that of privacy. The headlines come in many different forms. Sometimes it’s about how much information is appropriate to share on social media or how companies use a person’s browsing history and online activity to create advertisements that specifically target that individual.
What worries most people are the stories about the massive data breaches that compromise hundreds of millions of pieces of highly sensitive information, exposing an enormous number of people to identity theft. It seems like we hear about such incidents on an almost monthly basis. But while hacked credit card or bank account numbers might be at the front of people’s minds, many don’t realize just how vulnerable their medical data is.
Though a patient’s medical information is tightly regulated by federal law, namely the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and other state laws, health data breaches are far more common than people might realize. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported there were 477 healthcare-related data breaches that jeopardized information for more than 5.6 million patients. Add this to the 450 data breaches that affected 27 million patients in 2016 and you start to see the magnitude of the threat.
Because virtually everyone has a health record, virtually everyone is at risk.
A crucial step in protecting this sensitive information is through education. By making the public aware of just how important an individual’s medical information is, patients, caregivers, doctors and healthcare facilities can work to ensure greater protection.
Why it’s so important
To most, the reasons one would wish to keep their medical information private might seem self-evident. There are things you don’t want other people, especially strangers, to know. However, beyond the need for privacy, there are many reasons why it’s important to protect medical information.
- It’s highly personal. There are myriad reasons people want their health information to remain confidential. From a practical stance, certain information could impact a person’s employment and insurance eligibility.
- Health data doesn’t go away. While you can cancel a credit card or a bank account, an individual’s medical history is permanent and stays with you your entire life.
- It’s more than just medical data. Medical reports contain insurance and financial information, Social Security numbers, addresses, the name of family members and more. All this information can be manipulated by cybercriminals.
- The data is needed for future care. As the medical world becomes increasingly digitized, clinics and hospitals often need to access patient data to make a proper diagnosis. Missing information that results from a cyberattack can interrupt patient care and prevent a thorough diagnosis.
- These breaches make patients less trusting. One of the residual effects of numerous medical data breaches is that it can cause patients to lose trust in the medical establishment. In the interest of maintaining their privacy in an insecure world, they may withhold sensitive — but important — information from their doctors. This could severely impact care.
In our digital world, advances in technology have made it easier than ever to share medical information in a way that both protects patient’s privacy and contributes to more accurate diagnoses and successful treatments. Though this has helped millions lead healthier lives, it has also put millions of patients’ information at risk. Knowing just how important this information is and why it needs to be protected is an important step in keeping patients safe.