By Brooke Faulkner
There’s no question that the forward march of medical technology has improved personal and public health, creating lasting positive change for humanity. New technology, however, sometimes comes with risks. While those risks rarely outweigh the potential advantages, fully exploring and preparing for them is an important responsibility.
New Solutions Pose New Dangers
One demonstration of this relationship occurred as we were developing medical devices meant to be used inside the human body. Using medical devices internally presents the problem of contamination from external sources, and we learned that killing bacteria isn’t enough — specifically, we discovered that the endotoxins produced by dead bacteria can also be harmful.
That particular issue, we’ve already solved. It is, however, an excellent example of how new benefits can present dangers that we hadn’t contended with before: our ability to kill bacteria presented a new problem as our technology continued to improve, and we started putting medical devices inside the body. We realized that some types of dead bacteria are still dangerous, and that our sterilization standards had to improve.
This relationship between new advancements and new risks continues today, although it takes different forms. The hot-button issue these days has more to do with data and privacy, which while not directly health related, has significant risks when breached.
Healthcare Data Innovations and Breakthroughs
Our ability to collect, process, and draw conclusions from ever larger amounts of data has been a huge boon to the medical industry.
- Asset tracking is the process of using fluid, regularly updated databases to keep track of physical assets and tools at a facility. However, it’s useful in many more ways than inventory management. Scanning and mobile device technology allows an asset to be kept track of at every point in its journey, from storage to use.
This method of tracking and categorizing physical assets, as well as patients, can be very useful in preventing serious accidents caused by miscommunication. Even life-threatening mistakes, such as wrong-site surgery, can be prevented by good data management. Timing, types, and amounts of medication can also be streamlined with this process, which could for example automatically sweep a database for potential adverse reactions or conflicts before a drug is prescribed to a patient.
- Giving doctors access to a digital database that covers a patient’s entire history is another advantage that advanced data technology can provide. These databases can be populated with information from several different sources, including family doctors, specialists, and even self-reported data. A doctor can have access to the notes of their peers in the medical community quickly and easily, vastly improving the care that a patient receives.
- From a management point of view, new data technologies allow administrators to streamline the operations of their offices and hospitals. Understanding how to best utilize staff for a balance of efficiency quality has a direct impact on the health of patients.
- Predictive analytics are another area which can be hugely beneficial to the healthcare field. Basically, it’s an automated process that does much of the work a doctor does already: look at a patient’s history, compare it with current medical knowledge, and use it to make predictions about that patient’s future needs. The difference is the scale at which it can be performed when automated and the sheer volume of up-to-date data that can be included. Doctors can’t be expected to keep up to date with every new study, but a database can be populated with that information to compare against.
On both a wide and individual scale, the applications of our improving data technology are saving lives and improving the quality of life of patients.
All this integration, however, comes with those pesky risks. Not nearly enough to warrant halting progress but enough to need heavy consideration.
Cybersecurity in Healthcare
The problem with health data is it’s often some of the most private and consequential data about human beings. That, unfortunately, makes it some of the most profitable to identity thieves, and even advertisers with few scruples. Healthcare data can be held to ransom, used for identity theft, or even insurance fraud. As DeVry University notes: “Your name, address, date of birth and Social Security number are all in one convenient location — ripe for stealing. Cybercriminals can take your private health information (PHI) and sell it for high prices. In fact, stolen medical records sell for 10 to 20 times more than stolen credit card numbers.”
The greater the number of devices you connect to a network, the more points of attack there are, and the more vulnerable each device becomes. The more data you centralize in a single place, the more catastrophic the outcome in the case of a breach. Since hospitals aren’t tech companies, cybersecurity is rarely a priority. Through inadequate resources and inadequate defensive measures, there have already been major breaches in healthcare data. Even England’s National Health Service fell prey to a major cyberattack.
As data becomes more integral to the healthcare industry, it also becomes more attractive to attackers. As we continue to develop expanded uses for modern data collection and analysis tools in the medical field, ever greater precautions will be needed. As any security expert will tell you, being “caught up” doesn’t prevent the next attack, because cybercriminals are constantly innovating new ways to target weaknesses, be they human or technological. Unfortunately, many of these weaknesses don’t become apparent until they’ve already been taken advantage of.
The healthcare industry needs partnerships with the tech industry to keep itself and patients protected. Just like with other advancements in medical technology, our expanding knowledge of digital data comes with potential pitfalls. In order to use established and emerging digital data technology to its fullest potential, and improve as many lives as possible, hospitals and medical companies need to become familiar with the complex world of cyber security.