Trendwatch: Privacy Concerns with Telehealth

Given the rate at which India has warmed up to Telehealth services, we can say now with a fair degree of certainty that telemedicine is here to stay. And because the industry is poised to grow and mature quite rapidly in the coming few years, we need to take an objective look at some of the critical challenges that need to be resolved.

For patients, one of the major concerns with Telehealth has been privacy and the related trust issues with the service. According to BusinessLine, 52% of people have declined telehealth services due to privacy or security concerns.

“If half of an available audience is pushing back against an offering, then it’s time for service providers to look up,” says Chiamala Aravamudhan, CEO of cSoft Technologies. “At a lay-person level, we don’t seem to speak much about data privacy in India, but people here are aware of how important it is.”

To understand these concerns at a more personal level, we spoke to a few people who have actively rejected telemedicine services. One of those is Supriya Chauhan, a young, 33-year old photographer in Delhi who lives a life steeped in electronic devices.

“You name a device and I have it at home,” she says. “As a digital photographer, my work demands it; so it’s not like I’m wary of digital environments on principle. But I will still avoid an online medical appointment if I can.”

Supriya’s reasons for avoiding an online consultation run the gamut from not knowing how her private information is being used to not wanting any more unsolicited text messages on her phone.

“I made the mistake of signing up with a large telehealth service provider once. And they haven’t stopped bombarding me with text messages since then” she complains. “I’m even getting random texts from doctor clinics – but I never reached out to them. So I really want to know how my information is being shared in the medical circuit!”

Supriya’s concern points to a larger issue related to privacy leaks and unregulated information sharing due to a lack of trust in the service providers. According to Business Line, approximately 33 percent of people report a general lack of trust towards telehealth, possibly because the platforms require so much patient data even before the appointment begins.

“It’s one thing to use online services for ordering groceries or movies. But medical platforms ask for very personal information such as health issues, medical reports, credit card information, and family histories of diseases; some even ask for the Aadhar card numbers. How can we be sure that this information is kept safe from predators?”

Societally, we may be at a point where the fear of credit card information being leaked is old news – and could pale in comparison with the challenges ahead. On one hand, hospitals and clinics are collecting more private information; on the other hand, patients are generating sensitive health-related data on the go with wearable tech.

“With legacy systems still prevalent in many hospitals, the risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches is high,” says Chiamala. “This is fast becoming a lot of data to manage and we can’t afford to have less than ideal conditions for keeping it safe.”

Moreover, video calls with web applications like WhatsApp or Zoom are not the most secure way of doing an online consultation. “Chat windows are not secure either,” says Chiamala. “When people share medical data over software that doesn’t belong to a hospital network, they risk having that information tampered with.”

There was a time when patient safety was exclusively a medical term. As we advance towards turning telemedicine into a multi-billion dollar industry, the phrase is taking on a new meaning. As an industry, we will need to place data security front and center and incorporate an entire ecosystem of checks and balances which include employee and patient training, ensuring data encryption, and investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure in order to prioritize patient safety.