Cybersecurity Considerations for Patient-Provider Messaging Platforms

By Katie Brenneman, Writer, Researcher
Twitter: @KatieBWrites93

If your healthcare facility or staff is making the switch to digital communications like so many others, you must do so with safety and security in mind. While digital communications with patients over email, messaging apps, and text might be more convenient, they can also expose your practice, your providers, and your patients to cyber threats that can put them at risk.

Let’s take a closer look at the communication changes occurring in healthcare with the rise of telehealth services and how providers and healthcare staff can be more proactive about protecting themselves and their patients from cybersecurity issues.

Patient Communications Have Come a Long Way

The world has been going digital for some time now, but it feels as though only recently, the healthcare industry has caught up with the rise of telehealth services and digital communications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this evolution of patient communication is not only thanks to the pandemic but also in response to a new generation of patients that have grown up with computers and cell phones.

Healthcare facilities and providers have been slowly adapting to this change over the years, but now it seems as if everyone is suddenly making digital patient communications a priority. In fact, studies have shown that 95% of patients today prefer text messaging to other forms of communication.

Emailing is also still popular among some older generations, as are phone calls, but the majority of patients today now prefer texting or messaging with providers through online portals. They also prefer to receive alerts and reminders for things like appointments, lab results, and prescription reminders.

Is Emailing and Texting Patients Safe and Legal?

The issue with this movement toward digital communication is the question of security. Is it safe and legal for doctors to communicate with patients digitally?

Electronic communication is convenient; there is no denying that. By transitioning to online portal services and using email and text messaging in healthcare, it eliminates the issue of “phone tag” and trying to find a good time to call and chat. Doctors can quickly and efficiently send their messages and then get on with their day, and patients can easily access that message online or on their phones without having to try to call their doctor back.

While this may seem ideal to many, others see it as problematic. Primarily, there is concern about privacy and security — the information being released could be accessed by someone else or hacked.

Technically, HIPAA Privacy Rule does allow doctors to communicate electronically or over text with their patients. However, the stipulation is that this is done with reasonable safeguards in place when doing so. And unfortunately, not all doctors or healthcare facilities take the necessary measures or precautions to avoid security issues.

As it is evident that we will only continue to move further and further toward digital services, it is paramount that healthcare providers make more of an effort to ensure the safety of their patients and even their own businesses and staff when communicating electronically.

Prioritize Patient Privacy and Avoid Security Threats

One of the biggest issues with cybersecurity is finding the right way to get clinicians to pay attention to it and understand it. Many healthcare companies already have cybersecurity teams in place with strict guidelines on how to keep things safe and secure, but the issue is getting clinicians to pay attention to the cybersecurity messaging when it is sent out to them.

Clinicians are busy, and they are constantly getting messages they have to read and messages they have to send out. So if they get an email about cybersecurity and precautions they need to take, it needs to stand out; otherwise, it gets lost in the noise.

One way to spread cybersecurity awareness for clinicians is to host meetings and require the staff to attend so they can learn in person about the precautions they need to be taking. Invite them to the discussion to help them better understand and identify the risks and how to manage them.

A lot of physicians and other healthcare staff don’t really think about the risks because they don’t have time to. So if you host a meeting or training sessions to lay it all out in front of them, it allows them to have a better understanding of how security threats can put them and their patients at risk. This will then encourage them to start taking more precautions when handling digital communications.

Educate them about all the potential cybersecurity threats and ways that scams and spam messages can put them at risk so that every time they open an email or a text or send one themselves, they are aware of the potential threats and how to avoid them.

Furthermore, this information should be passed along to the patient as well because, with cybersecurity, it’s a two-way street. Both the patient and the physician need to be taking precautions to avoid putting themselves at risk.

Of course, another answer to the problem is for healthcare companies to start utilizing more intelligent and integrated secure messaging services in the first place. Instead of making clinicians do the work themselves, have the security already built into the system.

Again, clinicians and doctors are busy and don’t often have time to take extra steps to make sure their digital communications are secure. The security should be built-in, not something that needs to be added on later.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s all about how you go about teaching healthcare staff about cybersecurity. Clinicians are inundated with a constant stream of information, so if you blast them with emails that aren’t really providing them with actionable information, it just gets lost in the noise of everything else they have to worry about.

You must be more mindful about getting the necessary cybersecurity information to them in a way that they can actually understand and make use of. Or, consider integrating smarter and more secure systems with everything already built-in in the first place.