The Danger to Patients When Health Information Privacy Isn’t Protected

Despite the great lengths to which healthcare organizations go in meeting HIPAA patient privacy requirements, consumers still have doubts that their information is truly secure. And with those doubts comes danger.

As Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, noted in a 2012 interview, “The lack of privacy causes bad health outcomes. Millions of people every year avoid treatment because they know health data is not private.” Peel points out healthcare delivery is largely based upon an individual’s willingness to trust healthcare providers enough to reveal intimate details from his or her life. Without trust, people delay treatment—sometimes until it is too late.

The challenge is that healthcare systems are electronically tracking patient data more than ever. For example, as of January 2015, 83% of office-based physicians had adopted electronic health records (EHR), according to the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology.

While this technology presents the potential to improve health outcomes, it can only do so when patients trust their providers and the technology they use.

Patients’ lost faith in health IT

As use of digital health records rises, so does patient mistrust of this technology. As recently as December 2016, market research firm Black Book found that a full 70% of Americans distrust health technology—sharply climbing from only 10% in 2014.

In a survey the organization conducted from September through December 2016, consumers were asked to evaluate the technology they have been exposed to, know of, or have interacted with as an active patient in the last 12 months.

Fifty-seven percent of consumers claiming experience with hospital, physician, or ancillary provider technology in 2016 reported being skeptical of the overall benefits of health information technologies such as patient portals, mobile apps, and EHRs, mainly because of recently reported data hacking and a perceived lack of privacy protections.

The national survey, which included 12,090 adult consumers, found that as the amount of available health data increases, so too does consumers’ hesitancy to share that information due to industry privacy and security issues. Black Book’s survey found that patient unwillingness to divulge all their medical information rose to 87% in the fourth quarter of 2016. Fewer consumers than ever are willing to see their digital health histories extend beyond their physician and hospital, as compared to a survey in 2013 when 66% of surveyed individuals were willing to divulge all personal health data to achieve enhanced care.

But perhaps the biggest challenge in addressing consumers’ perception that their data is not safe is the unfortunate truth: Privacy breaches are not uncommon.