Online Tracking Technologies: Warning Issued for Healthcare

By Art Gross, President and CEO, HIPAA Secure Now!
Twitter: @HIPAASecureNow
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In response to the growing use of online tracking technologies in healthcare, the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued a joint warning to hospital systems and telehealth providers about the potential threats these tracking technologies pose to patient data security.

The Importance of Compliance

HIPAA was enacted to protect patient’s sensitive health information and ensure their data’s confidentiality, integrity, and availability. It is essential for all healthcare providers, including hospitals and telehealth services, as it sets standards for safeguarding patient privacy and security. Violations of HIPAA regulations can lead to severe consequences, including hefty fines and reputational damage.

Online Tracking Technologies and Patient Privacy Risks

Online tracking technologies are commonly used by websites to gather user data, analyze user behavior, and optimize online experiences. However, when implemented in the healthcare sector, these tracking technologies can pose significant risks to patient privacy and security. Here’s why:

  1. Identifiable Information Leakage: If online tracking tools are not configured properly, they may inadvertently collect personally identifiable information (PII) or protected health information (PHI) of patients visiting healthcare websites. This data can be exploited for malicious purposes or inadvertently shared with third-party entities, leading to potential breaches of patient confidentiality.
  2. De-Anonymization of Data: While website operators often utilize de-identification techniques to protect user anonymity, combining data from multiple sources could potentially re-identify individual patients. This can jeopardize patient privacy, especially when sensitive health conditions are inadvertently linked to specific users.
  3. Data Breaches and Cyberattacks: Online tracking technologies are not immune to cyber threats. Hackers and cybercriminals might exploit vulnerabilities in tracking tools to gain unauthorized access to patient data. This could lead to data breaches and exposing sensitive medical information.
  4. Data Profiling and Discrimination: Aggregated data from online tracking technologies could be used to profile patients. Which could potentially lead to discriminatory practices in healthcare services or insurance coverage based on personal attributes or health conditions.

Best Practices for Healthcare Providers

When using online tracking technologies, healthcare providers should adopt the following best practices to maintain patient privacy and uphold HIPAA compliance:

  1. Risk Assessment: Conduct regular risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities in online tracking implementations and address them proactively.
  2. Data Minimization: Minimize data collection to the extent necessary and ensure that sensitive patient information is not unnecessarily stored or retained.
  3. Anonymization and Aggregation: Employ strong anonymization and aggregation techniques to protect user identities and prevent de-anonymization.
  4. Data Security Measures: Implement robust data security measures. This should include encryption, access controls, and intrusion detection systems, to prevent unauthorized access to patient data.
  5. Third-Party Audits: Regularly audit and vet third-party vendors, ensuring they adhere to HIPAA regulations and industry best practices.
  6. Transparency and Consent: Communicate to users the types of collected data. Be sure to gain explicit consent from patients before tracking their online activities.

These technologies bring both benefits and risks to the healthcare industry. While these tools offer valuable insights into user behavior, hospitals, and telehealth providers must prioritize patient privacy and data security. By adhering to HIPAA compliance, implementing best practices, and heeding the warning issued by the HHS OCR and FTC, healthcare organizations can strike a balance between leveraging technology for better patient experiences and safeguarding sensitive medical information.

This article was originally published on HIPAA Secure Now! and is republished here with permission.