Editor’s Note: J.A. Eve Krahe, Ph.D. is the dean of graduate programs for University of Phoenix School of Health Services Administration. Prior to joining University of Phoenix, she served as the director of health care innovation programs at Arizona State University.
In his comments to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in September 2015, Brian Dishman of Intel Corporation described the “constellation” of health data that surrounds each of us. From diagnostic, to consumer-generated, to genomic data, the potential is limitless. But, he warned, without secure and timely access to that data, we are missing the transformative opportunity to improve health outcomes for patients.
Dishman’s comments were born of experience. A cancer survivor of more than two decades, his treatment was riddled by miscommunication between practitioners and lack of collaboration across health systems. Put simply, for more than 20 years he was subjected to what has become a garish, nationwide reality: American health care organizations are suffering from a fundamental inability to process and disseminate health data in a secure and expedient way to both consumers and providers1.
Despite technology benefiting nearly every sector of society, health care providers have yet to maximize the true potential of the data universe. The utilization of health information data continues to pose a major challenge2 because the way in which it’s collected remains archaic; many providers still use paper forms and have not yet embraced cloud-based systems. While significant, this isn’t simply a technology issue; privacy and security policies, such as HIPAA, often create barriers for the very people who need the data the most. The ability to have greater access to health care data and real-time monitoring of vital health metrics helps provide a path for consumers to reduce the adverse effects of preventable diseases and chronic illness.
From the provider perspective, data analytics can help improve the personalization of care that is for patients. Robust auditing and analysis of data is leading to identification of successful and failed clinical outcomes vis-a-vis particular patient populations. Ensuring critical data management tools, like the “electronic health record,” are meaningfully integrated into data repositories will allow providers to more efficiently and effectively deliver care. This advantage will be amplified when health care organizations are able to seamlessly share or merge health care records across systems to create a more comprehensive patient profile.
At the same time patients are struggling to access their own data, personal health information is becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Medical records offer a treasure trove of sensitive personal, financial and insurance information of value to cyber criminals. With the creation of wearable technologies and the digitization of medical records and thus increased reliance on health networks to store medical records, cyber criminals have an array of access points to sensitive electronic records.
Patients’ concerns over the theft of health data are understandably high. A recent University of Phoenix® College of Health Professions survey found that 76 percent of U.S. adults are concerned their online health care records are vulnerable to attack and nearly half are not comfortable with their medical records being transferred across health care networks. These concerns come as four-fifths of executives at health care providers and payers say their information technology has been compromised by cyber-attacks3. Not surprisingly, the health sector has also been forecast as one of the most at-risk industries for cyber-attack, and breaches could potentially cost the industry as much as $5.6 billion annually4.
Health data security is also a personnel problem. With new technologies and networks available for storing personal health information, providers in many systems may not have the tools necessary to successfully adapt to the latest technologies and safeguard patient information5. To mitigate this, health care organizations must employ a workforce possessed of a nimble adaptability, enabling them to address and implement changes in technology, building and leading systems that are both consumer-centric and anti-theft.
In this dynamic environment marked by both patient-centric systems built on data transparency and the very real danger of data theft, it is imperative that health care organizations collaborate with educational institutions to develop leaders, recruit talent and “upskill” the current healthcare workforce to successfully navigate these complexities. In short, the task at hand is to educate the next generation of those entrusted with the transformation of health care and moving the industry forward.
Through industry-aligned, forward-looking education that is agile in its response to industry changes and grounded in real-world experience, we can ensure our health care workforce is prepared. Of particular importance to addressing the data challenges outlined above are academic programs whose value lies at data access and security issues with the support of leading experts and scholars in the compliance, privacy, policy and health information technology disciplines alongside practitioners who are immersed in patient-centric systems.
As consumers seek data transparency, and cyber criminals to capitalize on the vulnerabilities inherent in that transparency, the health care industry will continue to be at the center of the conversation around access to sensitive personal information. With the emergence of new technologies and advances in the health care sector, data breach prevention will continue to be a major priority. Through collaboration, health care organizations and educational intuitions must prepare those who will lead and shape the health sector going forward, answering the complexities of improving patient access to their own data while reducing the threat of data theft.
Opinions expressed by HIT Consultant Contributors are their own.