With the increase in telemedicine, your personal information may be at risk
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically and quickly re-shaped society and social interactions – and provider-patient interactions have been forced to evolve almost overnight.
Over the past several years technology has begun to change the way patients and their healthcare providers interact. Electronic medical records increased the accessibility of and comprehensiveness of medical records. Wearable devices are increasing the data a patient can provide to their provider and allowing for real time feedback on health. As internet speeds have improved and video conferencing has advanced there has been a cautious curiosity with the use of video to implement virtual visits.
And with the onset of the novel coronavirus, telemedicine has reached its highest level of interest ever. There are numerous benefits to the use of telemedicine, but there are also associated risks.
Some of the benefits include:
- On-demand access to your physician or therapist to aid in de-escalation during an acute mental health crisis
- On-demand patient care to help triage where you should seek care (i.e. should you go to an urgent care, emergency department or wait for an appointment with your primary care doctor)
- Access to care even when you live in a remote area
- Access to your physician even when transportation to the office is difficult due to finances or physical limitations
- Access to your physician when you can’t or don’t want to leave home
One of the hurdles to making telemedicine more widespread has been the difficulty of implementing it safely and effectively. Issues such as patient privacy and security of video streams (can the video be hacked) have prevented a full-scale implementation of telemedicine into practices. Large-scale breaches have occurred with technology giants like Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Equifax, eBay, and most recently with the video chat app Zoom.
With the recent disaster waivers being passed in reaction to COVID-19, the red tape that was some of the biggest hurdles to truly implement telemedicine processes have been cut. Privacy regulations have been removed. This has led to a sudden explosion of augmenting practices with telemedicine. While on the surface, this is exciting and allows patients to reach their providers with easy during the stay at home orders, there is danger to this explosion of use. Providers are adopting telemedicine quickly because they are no longer having to implement it within a framework that protects the patient’s privacy. The recent waivers have allowed providers to use any video platform such as Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype without first ensuring the platform will protect the patient’s personal information. It would be advisable to the providers to adopt telemedicine platforms that will survive the renewal of privacy regulations after the current crisis has improved. This will ensure that their platform can be used indefinitely, but more importantly, that even during the current pandemic, their patients’ information remains safe.
So what can be done? How can you, the patient, benefit from the rise of telemedicine while simultaneous ensuring your private information remains safe
1. Make sure the telemedicine platform is secure and patient privacy centered .
Call your provider and make sure the platform they are using is HIPAA compliant. HIPPA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It is a set of rules that a provider must follow to protect the patients’ information. If the telemedicine platform is not HIPPA complaint, use caution and look for another provider or health system that is using a HIPPA complaint one. There is no reason to jeopardize your privacy.
2. Make sure the platform is user friendly.
Once you make sure the platform is safe for your data, ask to see a demo or video of the software. Is this something you will be able to learn how to use? When you need your doctor the most, you don’t want to be fumbling around on your phone. Make sure you can learn how to use it before hand and it is a software that is easy to navigate.
3. Do your own research .
Start of by asking your provider what platform they are using. Then do your own search online and see what has been reported about its safety and easiness of use. Also, search online about different telemedicine programs. Do your own research on what is safe and easy to use. Then search for a provider using that platform or request that your provider adopt that platform.
4. Inquire about office procedures
Ask your provider: Is there is a specific person – a privacy officer – in charge of information security; Is health information access is protected (cabinet locks, encrypted computer files, passwords, etc.); Is office trained on how to keep information secure and private; Does his office inform patients of their rights under HIPAA privacy rules; Do they limit access to your patient information to the practice only and to no third parties?
The current pandemic has forced the healthcare system to adapt and change in unprecedented ways. It has been the catalyst for innovation and implementation of new ideas and technologies. Many of these will continue well past the current pandemic and help improve the cost-efficiency and accessibility healthcare. Innovation, however, should not come at the cost of patient safety and privacy. Providers must uphold their oaths to do no harm. Patients should hold providers accountable to continue to innovate, but to innovate safely.
A good summary of the federal regulations regarding HIPAA security can be found HERE.
Michael Merjanian, M.D. M.M.M is an emergency medicine physician in Los Angeles, California, with a background in both medicine and medical management. He graduated from UCLA and earned his M.D. from Ohio State University College of Medicine. Dr. Merjanian consults for Titan HST, focusing on telemedicine solutions. He was recognized as a "Neighborhood Hero" for his COVID-19 pandemic efforts, as featured in Men's Journal.