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Physician Heal Thyself: Are Your Medical Records Safe?

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According to an article in Tech Times, healthcare providers in the U.S. may lose $305 billion in the next five years due to cyberattacks. One way those attacks keep happening: BYOD, or bring your device to work.

One definition of insanity, according to Einstein (and my chief content officer Michael Schreiber), is to do the same thing, over and over, expecting a different result. Well, when it comes to cybersecurity, the precautions one can take are manifold. That said, you don’t have to be a genius to see that BYOD presents a very obvious point of attack.

Here’s what I have to say about it in my forthcoming book, Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves.

A practice making waves in the healthcare industry is BYOD, or “bring your own device,” practices. Doctors and other medical employees frequently need to access sensitive data electronically, and the practice of downloading it to their personal laptops, tablets, and smartphones presents significant problems.

The problem with BYOD? Very few organizations require their employees to install antivirus/antimalware software on their smartphones or tablets or scan and remove all mobile apps that present a security threat prior to allowing them to be connected to their networks or systems. Even at organizations that do have some kind of protocol regarding BYOD and antivirus or antimalware software, self-policing tends to be the rule. There is no way of knowing whether a given employee has downloaded every update, so protection against malware may be very spotty, even if on the surface it appears to be an issue on an organization’s radar.

I don’t know about you, but that scares me to death, because we live in a time when databases have started to include a terrifying amount of extremely intimate information about illnesses, diagnoses, treatments and health issues that nobody should have to fear might become reading material for criminals or their customers.

So what happens if a criminal gets his or her hands on your pristine medical records? To some extent, it depends on how much information you have shared with your doctor. While it goes without saying that your physician will have all the requisite contact and insurance information for billing, he or she might also have information that they don’t necessarily need, such as your Social Security number (if you are insured, your doctor probably does not need this information, and it’s worth at least trying to persuade them to proceed without it).

They also don’t need a ton of personally identifiable information that falls under the category of TMI: the names and/or birthdates of family members (which often do double duty as passwords or security questions for your bank, credit card and brokerage accounts). Some doctors and medical groups will even hold onto financial information that, in the wrong hands, could be used to access your bank or credit card accounts.

In addition to these financial risks, your medical records provide information that can be used in other ways. For instance, once a criminal has your personal information and insurance details, he or she can use it, or enable another person to use it, to gain access to the healthcare system in your name, and the result could be the contamination of your medical records with his or her co-mingled information. Nothing is more dangerous than going to a hospital and having “your” medical records, as used by an identity thief or his/her customer, reflect an inaccurate blood type, medical history or the existence or absence of certain allergies as you are trying to access care, particularly in an emergency situation.

If an impostor uses your insurance to gain access to healthcare, it can also affect your own ability to access care: many insurance plans have yearly caps on certain types of procedures and treatments—and no insurance company is going to pay for one person to have an appendectomy twice. An identity thief with access to your insurance could drain your coverage before you even know it’s happened, and leave you in the lurch when you need it.

There is of course another big target here, namely, your prescription history. Prescription drug abuse continues its meteoric rise, and the value of some prescription drugs on the street, such as Oxycodone, is skyrocketing. An identity thief could very well use his or her access to your medical records to get the prescription drugs you need, leaving you both without medication and under suspicion for quickly maxing out your refills and trying to get more.

Massive cyberattacks that target credit and debit cards aren’t anywhere near as problematic. In reality, once those cards are replaced, the immediate danger has passed, and there is rarely any burden for the cardholder. Subsequent phishing attacks by email, phone and text are a bit more problematic, but if consumers exercise care—don’t click on links that make no sense, and think about what might not make sense—damage can be contained, and any issues that do arise can be resolved. However, when it involves medical identity theft, the crime can be nearly invisible. If it is discovered at all, it’s not until there’s an emergency when the consequences can be literally life threatening. This is why it is important to carefully check every explanation of benefits that comes in the mail. Another practice: Ask to see your medical records whenever you visit your doctor or specialist.

The above is an adapted excerpt from Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves, which hits bookstores everywhere Black Friday.

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