Digitization of healthcare: Addressing privacy and security concerns

- Sudhir Rao

The digitization of healthcare is reshaping business models, bringing in more equity in healthcare access, boosting research, and improving care outcomes. Forrester predicts that in 2024, healthcare leaders will make strategic investments in technology, with a focus on expanding AI capabilities to enhance patient experiences and improve efficiencies.

Central to these shifts is the easy availability of patient data. A Health Glance 2021 study reveals that nearly 93% of primary care practitioners across 24 countries utilize digital technologies, including Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). A patient’s EMR journey begins when they feed their details into a clinic’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) system at the time of registration. During a consultation, the doctor or medical advisor will add further details such as the patient’s medical history, ongoing medication, and treatment plans into the EHR. The patient can access these health records online and actively engage in the care process. If the clinic refers them to a specialist or wants a blood test, data will be shared with the specialist or the lab so that correct information is available when needed.

However, in the pursuit of seamless data access, healthcare companies must prioritize data privacy and security to avoid compromise. As outlined in Check Point Software’s 2023 Cyber Security Report, there was a 74% surge in global cyberattacks on healthcare organizations in 2022 compared to the previous year. The risk of future cyberattacks is anticipated to rise as electronic data exchange becomes increasingly essential for healthcare organizations.

Furthermore, Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) that transmit real-time patient data for continuous remote health monitoring, tele-consultations, and research in clinical trials pose a risk. Such data exchanges are vulnerable to breaches, potentially exposing healthcare companies to lawsuits.

Navigating privacy and security challenges in digital healthcare

Unauthorized access and data breaches

Significant threats arise from unauthorized access to patient records and data breaches. IBM reported a 53.3% increase in healthcare breach costs in the past three years since 2020, totaling $10.93 million in 2023.

In 2022, a major Australian private health insurer fell victim to a cyberattack, where Russian-based hackers breached the personal information of 9.7 million customers, including details on 1.8 million international customers and prominent Australian politicians. In 2023, a leading US healthcare provider experienced a substantial healthcare data breach, with hackers exposing the sensitive data of approximately 11 million patients, as reported to the HHS data breach portal.

Healthcare companies are adopting encryption techniques for both stored and transmitted data to safeguard electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) and comply with industry regulations. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES-256) is a widely accepted specification for encrypting electronic data. Encryption also facilitates crypto-shredding at the end of the data or hardware lifecycle. Regularly updating encryption keys and storing them separately from the data is essential.


Cyberattacks pose persistent risks, with ransomware attacks being a top concern. According to a Sophos survey, more than 1 in 3 healthcare organizations globally fell victim to ransomware attacks in 2020.

Enhanced security calls for a multi-pronged strategy. Besides periodic security scans of applications, networks, and devices, healthcare organizations need to conduct simulation attacks to assess system strengths and weaknesses. They also need to identify weak domain passwords using Active Directory tools, regularly survey suppliers and partners for regulatory compliance, and implement encryption for tablets and mobile devices. Performing continuous updates and promptly adjusting controls after an audit, are critical to countering evolving cyber threats.

Human error and insider threats

Threats could emerge from within a healthcare organization in the form of human errors and intentional or unintentional actions that compromise sensitive patient data.

Healthcare professionals require regular cybersecurity education to ensure protection of patient data and integrity of the medical system. Besides addressing common threats such as phishing and malware, healthcare organizations should also focus on cybersecurity compliance. Regular assessments and reporting channels are equally crucial for fostering a vigilant culture with a state of constant preparedness. Healthcare organizations can also access complimentary training resources from The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to enhance cybersecurity.

Unsafe organizational practices

In healthcare, sharing data poorly puts patient privacy and the protection of confidential medical information at risk. Blockchain, with its provision of decentralized and distributed ledgers, helps address this challenge as it establishes a secure system for storing and managing patient data. Through access control policies via smart contracts, only authorized entities are granted permission to retrieve or modify health information. Features like audit trails and consensus mechanisms further amplify blockchain's effectiveness in enhancing transparency, traceability, and accountability, making it a robust solution for secure data sharing.

Regulatory pitfalls

Healthcare companies are today navigating a complex regulatory environment with changing standards in the midst of resource constraints and legacy systems. In-house teams face the pressure of conducting regular staff training, overseeing third-party relationships, preparing for audits, adapting to changing standards, engaging and educating patients, and addressing interoperability issues to maintain compliance.

Although FHIR that standardizes APIs is being utilized by 80% of US hospitals and clinicians, it is only for a fraction of its potential use cases.

The primary regulatory framework in the US is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), besides legislations passed by individual US states such as California (CCPA), New York (SHIELD), and Massachusetts (201 CMR 17.00). In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) safeguards data protection and privacy rights. Additionally, there are several other healthcare-related regulations such as the HITECH Act of 2009, EMTALA of 1986, Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Laws, PSQIA of 2005, and the 21st Century Cures Act.

Healthcare businesses can accelerate their go-to-market strategy using tools and frameworks that comply with the Health Level Seven International (HL7) FHIR standard for healthcare data exchange. Although FHIR that standardizes APIs is being utilized by 80% of US hospitals and clinicians, it is only for a fraction of its potential use cases.

Hence, healthcare organizations can benefit from a partner who can enable them to stay compliant and ensure API enablement and Cloud enablement of their legacy systems to establish secure interoperability and scalability. Torry Harris Integration Solutions (THIS) has expertise in implementing APIs for optimal data exchange and offers an Interoperability Kit for Digital Healthcare Data Exchange to streamline FHIR-compliant API adoption in healthcare organizations.

As the healthcare landscape evolves, the success of digitization will rely on organizational efforts to prioritize privacy and security. Addressing the full spectrum of challenges requires healthcare organizations to adopt a holistic strategy involving regular and comprehensive training programs and robust practices for quality, audit, and security controls as well as industry-compliant API standardization.

During this rapid digital transformation of healthcare, a focus on building valuable partnerships to streamline data management within a strong security network will provide healthcare organizations with a competitive advantage.

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About the author

Sudhir Rao

Independent Consultant