Improving the security of Canadians’ health-care information
ABIGAIL CARTER-LANGFORD Abigail Carter-Langford is chief privacy and security officer and executive vice-president, governance, risk and compliance at Canada Health Infoway. Since 2017, she has worked to promote Infoway’s commitment to addressing health i
While we have seen impressive advancements in virtual care and digital health tools during the pandemic, a recent survey found that 74 per cent of Canadians are worried about the privacy and security of their personal health information. This is because cyber attacks that affect the integrity of health care hit Canadians where it hurts most. The risks associated with these attacks, such as the loss of access to or misuse of one’s critical health-care information, are pain points for patients across the country. Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care information has been a focus of attack among bad actors. However, it is also clear that digital health solutions and virtual care are here to stay. According to a Canada Health Infoway survey, 51 per cent of patient-reported visits are now virtual, over double prepandemic levels. This data reveals that while Canadians have concerns about privacy and cybersecurity when it comes to their health information, they still want virtual care and digital health services to exist, with the expectation that they should support their privacy. That is why it is more critical than ever for physicians, pharmacists and patients to choose trusted providers within the digital care space that prioritize privacy and security. Take the prescription process, for instance. E-Prescribing services like PrescribeIT modernize the prescription process by enabling physicians to electronically transmit a prescription directly from an electronic medical record (EMR) to the pharmacy management system of a patient’s pharmacy of choice. E-Prescribing can be a significant asset when in-person visits with health care professionals are not possible or recommended, which has certainly been the case over the course of the pandemic, as it reduces the need for in-person physician or nurse practitioner visits. E-Prescribing also decreases the risk of privacy breaches due to fax transmission issues or unsecured email. Fax is the most common transmission tool used within health care, yet fax machines do not have any security or protection features to ensure patient data remains secure. There is no track record or accountability to show who has seen the information that comes through a fax machine, or a way of guaranteeing that data ends up in the right hands. Conversely, digital tools like eprescribing allow physicians and pharmacists to know where the information on a prescription has been, who has seen it and whether it has arrived at the intended destination. In the same way Canadians have come to expect that their banking information will be safe throughout their banking journey, patients need the assurance that their health care information will be safe from end-to-end. The beauty of PrescribeIT is that data is encrypted in transit and at rest using industry standard cryptographic algorithms to significantly improve data integrity, with antivirus and firewall protections also in effect to combat the risk of data losses and manipulations or cyberattacks. When talking about privacy, it is also important that a patient feels confident their information is being used only for the benefit of their own health care. Concerns that the information will be sold or otherwise exploited for profit are real among Canadians. Services like PrescribeIT have data protection woven into their DNA and work closely with ministries and oversight bodies to prioritize transparency and the protection of patient data from commercial exploitation. While there are risks associated with any form of electronic aggregated information, we must ask ourselves if those risks outweigh the rewards, and secure digital health tools have proven themselves to be fundamental to receiving good quality care. As someone who has experienced the benefits of virtual care first hand during the pandemic, the notion of experiencing potential additional risk to get a prescription that could have been securely sent to my pharmacy of choice using e-prescribing, seems counterintuitive. As we look beyond the pandemic, the question is no longer “will we continue to implement electronic tools like e-prescribing into our health care system?” Canadians across the country have already answered with a resounding yes. The question is now “how do we implement these tools safely,” anticipating, managing and counteracting the risks of the digital world to ensure the benefits greatly outweigh them. When it comes to e-prescribing, this means investing in the latest security measures and equipping physicians and pharmacists with the tools they need to prioritize privacy and cybersecurity throughout the prescription process, allowing them to safeguard Canadians’ health information.