Telehealth is the future of healthcare, but how secure is it?

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54 percent of Americans have opted for virtual visits during pandemic, a CynergisTek survey reveals. Of those, more than 70 percent of respondents plan to continue to use telemedicine post-pandemic.

telehealth security

However, healthcare providers should note that privacy and protection of sensitive health data was a major concern for telemedicine users and breaches could prompt patients to switch doctors.

“The rapid growth of telehealth has accelerated to a level we wouldn’t have expected to see over a 10-year timeframe,” said Caleb Barlow, president and CEO of CynergisTek.

“However, major vulnerabilities are emerging around privacy and security standards for video conferencing and messaging apps when used for telehealth (such as consumer technologies like Zoom), which can be easily infiltrated – providing hackers with additional opportunities to breach highly-sensitive information.”

Delaying in-person visits, spurring rise of telehealth

During the pandemic, 56 percent of Americans have considered postponing non-emergency medical appointments until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. When put in a hypothetical situation where they would need medical care during the pandemic, the types of appointments Americans are postponing include:

  • Vaccines: 25 percent of Americans would postpone annual vaccines such as a flu shot until the pandemic was resolved.
  • Annual physicals: Nearly 40 percent are considering postponing physical exams for adults and child wellness exams.
  • Dental and vision exams: 45 percent of consumers said they would postpone their dental/orthodontics check-up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by 43 percent postponing an eye exam.
  • Elective cosmetic procedures: More than 40 percent report considering putting off elective cosmetic services and surgeries (i.e. Botox, breast augmentation, etc).
  • Elective surgery: 35 percent report considering pushing out surgeries like hip and knee replacements until after the pandemic.

As Americans weigh their comfort level on what medical services require in-person visits with a physician or healthcare provider, telehealth options have skyrocketed as a popular alternative, providing convenience and access at a time when many are canceling appointments out of an abundance of caution.

According to the survey, while 39 percent of Americans opted for in-person visits, more than 54 percent of respondents opted for telehealth options with phone consultations and video visits being the two most popular. When examining consumers’ willingness to using telehealth post COVID-19, the survey found:

  • Of those who have used telehealth options during the COVID-19 pandemic, 73 percent report they will continue virtual visits after the pandemic passes.
  • 79 percent of male respondents who have used a telehealth solution during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue using them post-COVID, compared to 67 percent of females.
  • Millennials are statistically more likely than any other generation to continue using telehealth options after the pandemic has passed (81 percent), followed by Gen X (79 percent).
  • In a hypothetical situation where they needed medical care, 25 percent of Americans would not consider using a telehealth solution for any of the appointments or procedures types presented – this number is significantly higher among Baby Boomers (41 percent) and the Silent Generation (59 percent).

Embracing telehealth and balancing security needs to protect patients

While urgent visits require in-person consultation, Americans are looking to telehealth to fill in the gap for more routine types of care.

In a hypothetical situation where they’d need medical care or advice, nearly 30 percent of respondents would also look to telehealth for chronic care check-ups (29 percent) or annual physical and children’s wellness exams (27 percent).

While patients are embracing telehealth, providers must prioritize security when rolling out phone and virtual services or else they risk potential breaches of sensitive patient data.

A recent report found an increase in nefarious attacks targeting video conferencing tools like Zoom, reinforcing the need for healthcare providers to reassess their security posture and fortify their defenses to reflect this new reality, potentially losing their patients’ trust and business.

48 percent of respondents said they would be unlikely to use telehealth solutions again if their personal health data was hacked due to a telemedicine-related breach.

  • Women are more unlikely than males to use telehealth solutions again if their health information was involved in a telemedicine-related breach (54 percent of women vs. 41 percent of men).
  • Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are the two groups most unlikely to return to telehealth solutions if their data was involved in a telehealth-related breach (62 and 65 percent respectively).

“We find ourselves in a very unique scenario, where consumers had to almost accept telehealth overnight,” said Russ Branzell, CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.

“The progress has been amazing to see in creating easier access to care while reducing the burden on both providers and patients. However, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect and secure telehealth and other digital health technologies.

“With the opportunities of digital health also come inherent security risks – but digital health’s risks are manageable. It is important for healthcare providers to take data privacy and security seriously in order to ensure that digital health platforms like telehealth remain an essential part of the future of patient care.”

“We appreciate that this is a new development and healthcare providers are balancing all the new demands the pandemic has created,” said David Finn, Executive Vice President of Strategic Innovation of CynergisTek.

“However, the first step is to assess how the data is encrypted and who is authorized to access this data. From there, IT teams should work closely with leadership to fill in the security gaps on telehealth solutions that protect patients while also providing the convenience.”

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August 19, 2020