The Need of the Hour is Patient Data Security and Trust – Everything Else Follows

Abhinav Shashank
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It is a great time to monitor healthcare transformations from close quarters. It is also interesting to notice how healthcare has become a battleground for all sorts of experimentations and evaluations in recent times. We have AI chipping in from one end and blockchain from another. We have a booming wearables market along with a never-fading buzz around telehealth. Organizations are going to great extents to enhance the quality of care. Unsurprisingly, almost all hospitals across the states possessed a Certified Health IT Technology in the year 2017- often considered the first step towards increasing healthcare efficiency.

Source: The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology

 

While health IT is important, it all begins with patients and providers coming together

The end goal of most treatment procedures is to eliminate the health issue, enhance the patient’s quality of life, or ideally both. While providers have the expertise, patients have the knowledge about their health statuses such as symptoms, the intensity of pain, and many other key pieces of information. Patients may have access to some ambiguous information related to their health issues, and it is essential that providers clear all their doubts. In a way, the more providers and patients trust each other, the more comprehensive the care experience becomes.

A study that was published in PLOS One journal last year found that a patient’s trust in his/ her provider is associated with overall quality of life. This study also found that although it may not explicitly impact care outcomes, patient trust indeed plays a great role in their perception of care.

To begin with, a provider should ensure that their patients do not feel neglected, misunderstood, or disrespected. Jumping to conclusions without hearing the complete story, for instance, may result in missing some critical points or patients being misunderstood unknowingly. Likewise, not facilitating bidirectional communication with patients may make them feel left out.

However, in order to treat patients in the manner they want, it is critical that providers have the right data. If they have access to limited patient information, it can impact the final outcomes.

On the flip-side, why are patients not comfortable with sharing their entire history?

Many patients are not comfortable with sharing their entire clinical data with their providers. Additionally, a huge number of patients do not like the idea of sharing their information beyond their PCP. Unfortunately, their concerns are somewhat backed by the numbers. According to a report published in 2016, one out of three Americans were affected by a data breach in 2015.

Along with healthcare data, the relevance of a seamless information-sharing network has also grown at a tremendous pace. Right from HHS to private provider and payer organizations, each relevant stakeholder is pushing for establishing truly interoperable systems. But is it enough? Making a system is one thing, but making it work is another.

While the issue of data breaching does constitute to a large portion of the problem, an altogether different challenge is that of bringing patients close enough to their providers. Nurturing the patient-provider relationship is important in creating an ecosystem where patients can share the minutest of details regarding their health, and feel confident in doing so.

Patients withholding critical information with providers is certainly a wake-up call for all healthcare professionals. Many observers point out the lack of transparency around the use of data and fear of compromising privacy as two of the major concerns of patients. A survey conducted a few years ago revealed that about 87% of patients hold back information due to data-security concerns. While patients do understand the importance of sharing their health information, they are concerned about the information being shared with the government, their employers, or retailers.

How can organizations leverage cutting-edge technologies to build patient trust?

Fortunately, the percentage of patients who believe that sharing their data electrically is not a good idea is low. According to the study quoted above, only 5% of patients do not trust the emerging technologies. However, about 70% of the patients are concerned about the prowess of their providers regarding the use of these technologies.

It is often assumed that how patients embrace health IT solutions is greatly dependent on various socioeconomic factors. However, it is hard to segregate patients based on their age or other demographics when it comes to adoption rates of technologies such as mobile apps patient-portals. In fact, older patients are embracing patient portals at the same rate as that of the relatively younger population. Such applications generally have data as their foundation, and therefore their utility-patterns can be taken into account to decipher patients’ data usage trends.

Interactions with physicians can help patients to understand the challenges associated with data security and how to mitigate such risks. Physicians also have a role to play in encouraging patients to use patient portals and other communication mediums in a healthy manner. Most importantly, physicians need to make their patients comfortable with sharing their data through extended personalized and mentorship sessions. A small survey that I came across recently highlighted the gap between patients and physicians regarding the latter’s security policies in place.

Fig: A sample survey aimed at identifying patients’ knowledge regarding physician’s security policies

 

Healthcare organizations need to create strategies for physician and patient engagement

Patients generally trust their healthcare professionals for the services they provide. In fact, they are believed to have high moral and ethical standards. As per an analysis by an independent research firm, people involved in healthcare professions took 3 out of the top 5 places in the list of most trusted professions in the US.

Source: America’s Most and Least Trusted Professions, Statista, The Statistics Portal

 

Providers who find time to interact with their patients at a more interpersonal level tend to establish a long-lasting relationship with them. Most patients appreciate physicians who take the extra five minutes from their schedule and ask them if they are doing well at work or which NBA team they support. Invariably, the task of bringing patients closer may not always be the easiest of the tasks. However, such a process can provide rich dividends in both the short and long term.

It is interesting to note that in many cases, patients may not really feel obligated to share their history or the childhood health issues they dealt with in the first meeting. Worse still, patients with chronic diseases may not always understand the need for sharing their entire history with their PCPs and may put themselves at risk of further complications. In such cases, nurturing the patient-provider relationship holds the key to a better future.

If utilized properly, digital technologies can also assist providers in going the extra mile and accelerate communication efforts. Unsurprisingly, about 93% of physicians feel that mHealth apps can boost patient engagement. Providers who constantly monitor the health of their patients either through patient engagement solutions or remote monitoring technologies can take prompt actions and ensure rapid patient recovery.

While data breaches are a reality, it’s still important for patients to trust their providers

As noted previously, it is estimated that every third patient was a victim of a healthcare breach in the year 2016. Out of these breaches, hackers were responsible for about 98% of the cases. A statistical compilation by the University of Illinois revealed that the per-record cost of healthcare data breaches can be as high as $363. According to The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, about two-thirds of patients are concerned about how their data is transmitted electronically.

Data breaches are the reality of this digital age; however, it is still important for providers to have the relevant data packets for improving clinical outcomes. While making patients believe that comprehensively sharing their data is essential, ensuring data safety is highly critical too.

One piece of advice that most experts have for healthcare organizations is that hope alone cannot be a strategy. Any organization that deals with a vast amount of patient data needs to have a cutting-edge logging and analytics model in place to identify any abnormal activity. Testing data systems regularly is another activity which should be on the priority list of all organizations.

On the provider side, organizations should entrust their physicians with the task of building trust among their patients. Physicians are the best individuals to explain the nuances of data security to their patients, resolve any doubts around how patient data is utilized, and what role the provider plays in eliminating the risk of data breaches.

The road ahead

Truly interoperable systems will soon be a norm across healthcare organizations in the United States. Technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will be leveraged by organizations to create new avenues for quality and financial improvements. In the next several years, various agencies will work hard to combat the challenge of data breaches and ensure maximum data security. The cornerstone of success will still be providers who go to extreme lengths for their patients and organizations, and patients who trust their caregivers with their data. While digital channels will aid provider-patient communication, the onus will still be on providers to safeguard the all-important foundation of trust between the two.

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