Is Your Health Data Really Safe?

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The digital health revolution is rapidly transforming healthcare delivery across the globe. The adaptation of online appointment booking to telemedicine consultations along with the rise of health apps has made healthcare more accessible and convenient. Amidst all these, there is an underlying crucial question: is our health data truly safe in this digital ecosystem?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. While regulations like the Information Technology Act (2000) and draft Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) have been formulated to safeguard data privacy, the reality paints a concerning picture.

Data Threat in India

The nation has witnessed several high-profile data breaches in recent years, exposing the vulnerability of sensitive information, including health data. Some concerning examples include

  • CoWIN Breach (2021): This massive data leaks allegedly from the CoWIn portal compromised the personal details and vaccination status of millions of Indians registered on the CoWIN platform, India’s COVID-19 vaccination registration portal. The exposed data included complete names, phone numbers, and Aadhaar numbers raising serious concerns about identity theft and misuse.
  • Delhi Hospital Breach (2020): A leading hospital in Delhi suffered a cyberattack that exposed the medical records of thousands of patients. This breach included PHI – protected health information in areas like diagnoses, medications, and treatment history questioning the safety of the hospital’s digital infrastructure.

It is estimated that the true extent of data breaches might be even larger due to underreporting.

The Ripple Effects of Data Misuse

  • Insurance Discrimination: Leaked health data could be used by insurance companies to refuse coverage or charge higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions that can have a devastating impact on individuals seeking medical care.
  • Employment Discrimination: Potential employers may gain access to sensitive health information, leading to discriminatory hiring practices based on perceived health risks.
  • Social Stigma: The stigma towards health conditions like HIV/AIDS or mental health issues can increase social stigma and affect an individual’s well-being
  • Scams: Cybercriminals could exploit health data to launch targeted scams. For example, individuals with a history of a specific condition might be more vulnerable to phishing scams through ads, calls and messages.

Future of Health Data Security

 

  • Blockchain: Blockchain technology offers a decentralized and fool-proof way to store and manage data- the way health data is recorded and accessed, to ensure greater transparency and control.
  • Homomorphic Encryption: This advanced technique allows healthcare providers to analyze medical data for research purposes without compromising patient privacy.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI-powered security systems can be used to detect and prevent cyberattacks in real-time. Machine learning algorithms can analyze patterns in networks to identify suspicious behaviour and take proactive safety measures.

What can you do about it?

The main onus lies with healthcare providers, data managers and tech companies to prioritize secure data practices, we, as individuals also have a role to play:

  • Be selective: Carefully read the privacy policies of health apps before downloading and installing them to understand how your data will be used and shared.
  • Enable Two-Factor Authentication: Activate two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever possible on all your healthcare accounts such as hospital, pharmacy orders, apps etc. This adds an extra layer of security when logging in.
  • Stay wary of Phishing Attempts: Phishing emails and calls can appear to be true. Think twice about clicking on links or opening attachments from unknown senders.

The Road Ahead for a Secure Future

Government: The government needs to expedite the implementation of a comprehensive and robust data protection legislation like the DPI and PDPB, and address the specific needs of health data security. Additionally, investing in cybersecurity infrastructure and fostering awareness campaigns can equip both healthcare providers and individuals with the necessary tools for protection.

  • Healthcare Providers: Healthcare institutions must prioritize measures for data security through encryption, access controls, and regular vulnerability assessments for responsible handling of patient information.
  • Tech Companies: Developers of health apps and wearables have a responsibility to be transparent about data collection and usage practices and should prioritize user privacy by implementing strong security protocols.
  • Individuals: By being mindful of the information they share, adopting safe practices, we can contribute to a more secure environment.

National Health Authority (NHA): A Champion for Data Security in the ABDM

The NHA, established under the transformative Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM), acts as a central pillar in India’s digital health journey and has initiated several initiatives

 

  • Developing Data Governance Frameworks: The NHA is responsible for creating robust and comprehensive data governance frameworks for data collection, storage, access, and usage within the ABDM ecosystem that define roles and responsibilities for various stakeholders, ensuring transparency and accountability in data handling practices.
  •  Electronic Health Records (EHRs): The NHA establishes standards for EHRs to ensure data interoperability between different healthcare providers and platforms, for health data exchange while prioritizing data security.
  • Promoting Consent Management: The NHA actively promotes consent management mechanisms within the ABDM to empower individuals with control over their health data, allowing them to decide what information is collected, how it’s used, and who can access it.
  • Collaboration with Stakeholders: The NHA actively collaborates with various stakeholders like healthcare providers, innovators etc and patient advocacy groups to address data security concerns to make sure that all perspectives are considered when developing and implementing data protection measures.

Beyond the NHA: A Multi-Dimensional Approach

Securing the entire ecosystem requires a multi-pronged approach involving other healthcare regulators:

  • Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO): With the growing use of medical devices and telemedicine services, the CDSCO, responsible for regulating these sectors, needs to develop guidelines to address data collection practices by medical device manufacturers and ensure secure data transmission.
  • State Health Departments: State health departments can conduct regular audits of healthcare providers and tech companies to ensure compliance with data protection regulations.

Building a secure digital health ecosystem that seems ideal today requires ongoing innovation. Blockchain, homomorphic encryption, and AI offer promising solutions. Measures to prioritize data security and fostering trust between all stakeholders will help to unlock the full potential of digital health while safeguarding our privacy.


 

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About the author

A doctor by profession and a writer by choice. Graduated from The TN Dr MGR medical University , practiced for many years and turned to writing, an all time passion. Now contributes to health, nutrition, lifestyle and fitness related online and offline content. Loves to read, cook and travel.

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