Telehealth and online medical services have accorded many opportunities for healthcare professionals and patients around the world. A larger section of society is leveraging online medical services for the treatment, diagnosis, and monitoring of diseases. 

Due to Covid-19, online health services have registered a phenomenal demand in recent days. Majority of people, which includes working professionals, older generations are prioritizing online service as compared to traditional services to reduce the risk of exposure to disease. 

The online health services use digital information and communication technologies for the transfer of medical records over the internet. The data is usually transferred in the form of images, video, and documents (text). With the usage of internet and web services, the risk data breach is consistently there. These days, the incidents of the data breach are quite frequent. Almost all the industries including e-commerce, real estate, Banking/Credit/Financial services, education, have encountered one or the other form of data breach incidents recently.

The healthcare industry is no exception to this. In fact, the healthcare sector over the past few years has registered a higher number of data breaches as compared to other industries. The reason for the higher data breach in healthcare is due to two reasons, first, in many countries such as in the US, the telehealth services are required to follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. (HIPAA) complaints; and the covered entity needs to report the breach of unsecured protected health information. The other reason is monetary gains out of the patients’ data. The medical data of patients is relatively sold at a higher price as compared to other data.

However, data breach and illegal or unethical extraction of any form of data can have serious consequences and impact the lives of people negatively. 

Consequences of Data Breach

A security breach is one of the critical issues in cybersecurity for any industry, but in the case of the healthcare sector, it becomes even more grave. In the case of personal identity theft, the data stolen usually contains patients essential credentials such as name, age, address, usernames, passwords, Social Security numbers (SSNs), and financial information. Whereas, in case of the medical identity theft, it usually contains patient’s insurance details, pharmacy prescriptions, health history (such as surgeries, illness, and ailments), health billings and other medical accounts details. 

The stolen data is sold in the black market (dark web). This information is further used to take financial benefits like loans, medical claim (insurance) and purchasing drugs etc under the patient’s name. Similarly, the stolen data can be used for extortion, harassment or other such activity if the victim is suffering from a terminal illness or sexually transmitted disease.

The stolen data has long-term effects as the information continues to pass over the internet, which leads to identity theft to the concerned person. 

In addition to identity theft, the cyberattack also has severe consequences on the mental health of victims. The impact can be so severe that the affected person may feel humiliated, vulnerable, and powerless, which could lead to depression or other stress-related diseases, eventually arising risk of suicide-attempt by the concerned person.

As per the stats, it has been observed that the smaller firms are at higher risk of cyber attack as compared to larger firms. Similarly, in the case of healthcare services, the hospitals are more vulnerable to the data breach in comparison to the dedicated telehealth service provider. In todays’ time hospitals maintain a large amount of personal data of patients, which is relatively easy for the hackers to reach and sell it on the dark web for profit.

In fact, nowadays with the expansion of online medical services in rural areas, a new challenge has emerged in front of healthcare service providers and government in the form of protection of the data in these areas due to lack of skilled IT professionals. Moreover, for telehealth service providers, a data breach can also lead to the loss of trust and confidence among stakeholders and customers alike. It has been observed that the companies who have experienced the data breach in the past, lose future potential business opportunities in terms of both customers and new businesses.

The data breach is like a complex mess for healthcare services providers. First, they have to deal with damage in reputation and image, second in may case companies face extra financial burden on business due to lawsuits, penalties, settlements and low business operations. Similarly, the companies have to bear extra cost for the upgrading of the existing network. 

In order to prevent financial burden and losing patients to competitors due to data breach, it becomes indispensable for the companies to focus on cybersecurity at par with the quality of medical service. 

Ransomware, unsecured network connections, malware, SQL injection (SQLI)  & phishing emails, are some of the key reasons for data breaches. Not all the doctors or healthcare professionals are equipped with the knowledge about cybersecurity, so the lack of cybersecurity training from their end can also become a cause for data breaches. The other major reasons for the data breach are internal theft by employees purposefully or by accidental disclosures. similarly lost or stolen organisations devices and equipment can also lead to the exposure of patients healthcare information. 

Many a time it has been observed that companies didn’t even know that their data has been breached. Till the time the issue is fixed or discovered, major damage has already been done by the attackers. To deal with the data breaches companies are adopting the latest tools and techniques to safeguard the patient’s personal information and medical data. End-to-end data encryption, which includes encryption during transmission and on both server and patient device is one the first option for data protection. Similarly maintaining up-to-date antivirus and anti-malware solutions, conducting third-party security risk assessments on a regular basis, using multi-factor authentication, privileged access management and a proper cybersecurity training to employees & healthcare professionals can significantly reduce the data breach. The old age people are more prone to data theft as compared to younger generations. The online healthcare service providers can conduct specialised training to older people including people from other age groups for better healthcare information management.

With the advancement in technology, a large number of patients are likely to opt for online healthcare service in upcoming years. With the increasing demand, the risk of new and emerging cyber-attack also increases. To combat the cyberattacks, the healthcare industry needs to revamp up its cybersecurity strategies and have to keep pace with the latest trend and innovation in the industry. Likewise, the government also needs to regularly amend the Cybersecurity laws and policies related to the role and responsibility of concerned healthcare providers for patients’ health information flow over the internet.