What Would a Patient-Centered Security Program Look Like? (Part 2 of 2)

The previous part of this article laid down a basic premise that the purpose of security is to protect people, not computer systems or data. Let’s continue our exploration of internal threats.

Security Starts at Home

Before we talk about firewalls and anomaly detection for breaches, let’s ask why hospitals, pharmacies, insurers, and others can spread the data from health care records on their own by selling this data (supposedly de-identified) to all manner of third parties, without patient consent or any benefit to the patient.

This is a policy issue that calls for involvement by a wide range of actors throughout society, of course. Policy-makers have apparently already decided that it is socially beneficial–or at least the most feasible course economically–for clinicians to share data with partners helping them with treatment, operations, or payment. There are even rules now requiring those partners to protect the data. Policy-makers have further decided that de-identified data sharing is beneficial to help researchers and even companies using it to sell more treatments. What no one admits is that de-identification lies on a slope–it is not an all-or-nothing guarantee of privacy. The more widely patient data is shared, the more risk there is that someone will break the protections, and that someone’s motivation will change from relatively benign goals such as marketing to something hostile to the patient.

Were HIMSS to take a patient-centered approach to privacy, it would also ask how credentials are handed out in health care institutions, and who has the right to view patient data. How do we minimize the chance of a Peeping Tom looking at a neighbor’s record? And what about segmentation of data, so that each clinician can see only what she needs for treatment? Segmentation has been justly criticized as impractical, but observers have been asking for it for years and there’s even an HL7 guide to segmentation. Even so, it hasn’t proceeded past the pilot stage.

Nor does it make sense to talk about security unless we talk about the rights of patients to get all their data. Accuracy is related to security, and this means allowing patients to make corrections. I don’t know what I think would be worse: perfectly secure records that are plain wrong in important places, or incorrect assertions being traded around the Internet.

Patients and the Cloud

HIMSS did not ask respondents whether they stored records at their own facilities or in third-party services. For a while, trust in the cloud seemed to enjoy rapid growth–from 9% in 2012 to 40% in 2013. Another HIMSS survey found that 44% of respondents used the cloud to host clinical applications and data–but that was back in 2014, so the percentage has probably increased since then. (Every survey measures different things, of course.)

But before we investigate clinicians’ use of third parties, we must consider taking patient data out of clinicians’ hands entirely and giving it back to patients. Patients will need security training of their own, under those conditions, and will probably use the cloud to avoid catastrophic data loss. The big advantage they have over clinicians, when it comes to avoiding breaches, is that their data will be less concentrated, making it harder for intruders to grab a million records at one blow. Plenty of companies offer personal health records with some impressive features for sharing and analytics. An open source solution called HEART, described in another article, is in the works.

There’s good reason to believe that data is safer in the cloud than on local, network-connected systems. For instance, many of the complex technologies mentioned by HIMSS (network monitoring, single sign on, intrusion detection, and so on) are major configuration tasks that a cloud provider can give to its clients with a click of a button. More fundamentally, hospital IT staffs are burdened with a large set of tasks, of which security is one of the lowest-priority because it doesn’t generate revenue. In contrast, IT staff at the cloud environment spend gobs of time keeping up to date on security. They may need extra training to understand the particular regulatory requirements of health care, but the basic ways of accessing data are the same in health care as any other industry. Respondents to the HIMSS survey acknowledged that cloud systems had low vulnerability (p. 6).

There won’t be any more questions about encryption once patients have their data. When physicians want to see it, they will have to so over an encrypted path. Even Edward Snowden unreservedly boasted, “Encryption works.”

Security is a way of behaving, not a set of technologies. That fundamental attitude was not addressed by the HIMSS survey, and might not be available through any survey. HIMSS treated security as a routine corporate function, not as a patient right. We might ask the health care field different questions if we returned to the basic goal of all this security, which is the dignity and safety of the patient.

We all know the health record system is broken, and the dismal state of security is one symptom of that failure. Before we invest large sums to prop up a bad record system, let’s re-evaluate security on the basis of a realistic and respectful understanding of the patients’ rights.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for HealthcareScene.com. He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.