If you go back a while, doctors used to keep written medical records in their office. They were thought to be safely under lock and key within a filing cabinet (as long as someone remembered to lock it before leaving the building for the night). However, such protection did little to stop a break-in and the thief gaining access to filing cabinets where patient records were stored. Indeed, sometimes this would be the target of the break-in itself.
While medical record security is not something that concerns the average Joe, that changes when they have a medical condition that they’d rather remained private. Then it matters greatly to them.
For this article, we discuss medical records and how digital storage and encryption protect their private information from unsavory eyes.
Are Medical Records Any Safer When They’re Digital?
When you consider the risk of keeping paper files stored inside a locked filing cabinet, is the process of digitizing those records and using computer storage going to be safer for patients?
Possibly, but it depends on the measures taken to protect the medical data.
If it were stored on a local computer in the doctor’s office, perhaps networked within the practice so staff could look records up too, then perhaps not. A local database on a hard drive that was easily read by anyone who lifted the hard drive and took it home with them wouldn’t be much safer.
The Place for Data Encryption
Encryption of data essentially just means that the information is scrambled in such a way that it’s unreadable by the naked eye. Even if someone gained access to the hard drive, they couldn’t read the contents of the file or database.
There have been many types of encryption over the centuries, even going back to the Egyptian times with hieroglyphs and the Roman era. The Romans substituted alpha-numeric letters methodically to make the information unintelligible unless the key – how to decrypt the information – was known in advance.
Why Encryption Is So Important to Medical Records
Medical records contain not just the patient’s full name and social security number, but also their address, health test results, diagnosis, treatments, and more.
It’s necessary to rely on strong encryption standards to ensure this information is not legible and cannot be deciphered by a nefarious third party even if the data was surreptitiously obtained. This way, patients can have confidence that their trust and faith in the medical institution is not misplaced.
Data Sharing/Transfer in Various Forms
While a healthcare facility may not need to share patient data with other institutions, portions of it (if even just the patient’s basic identifiable information) is necessarily provided to different medical wards, or for the processing of medical tests. And sometimes to transfer a patient to a more appropriate medical facility.
Through all these situations, data must be encrypted to protect it should it be somehow intercepted.
Legal Consequences for Healthcare Organizations in Failing to Protect Health Records?
Enormous fines can be levied to medical institutions for a failure to protect patient data. Other penalties, and in worse cases, criminal charges may be pursued by the appropriate authorities where gross negligence is observed regarding the protection of patient information.
Keeping digital health records safe using strong encryption protocols is vital. Healthcare institutions and patients rely on this necessity to avoid confidential medical information from falling into the wrong hands.