Can You Find Me Now?

Mobile technology in healthcare is booming.  Perusing the front page of Fierce Mobile Healthcare will show you that there are wellness apps for cell phones, cell phone-based health tracking for wounded soldiers, ECG smart phone apps, and iPad tracking apps for seniors.  According to NaviNet’s blog, there are already more than 6000 health-related apps in the iTunes store and by 2015 there will be over 500 million using health apps around the world.

Some of the big boys in the industry are pouring tons of money into this market – WebMD, Google, Apple…the list goes on and on.  

With many Americans ditching the old land lines and relying solely on a cell phone coupled with physicians needing to become more streamlined in their care of patients, it seems mobile healthcare is a prime target for continued growth.  In fact Health IT Analysts at Chillmark Research predict that by the end of 2014, this market will grow to $1.7 billion. 

There’s some concern over who’s vetting these apps.  But I have another concern: what the heck happens when you lose your phone?  What happens when your iPad is stolen?  What happens when there is a theft at a medical center?

In 2006 Advanced Wireless Solutions, a software firm based in Burbank, California, noted that more than 37 million cell phones are lost, stolen, or damaged every year in the United States.   Specific to theft, it’s likely that these numbers have risen since 2006 due to the economic downturn.

And what about the cost of a lost cell phone?  Just ask the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in Connecticut about it. Keep in mind the example in that link highlights only the charges for calls and downloads.  What if there were Protected Health Information (PHI) involved? It could cost even more – like someone’s job.

This does not include the hundreds of thousands (dare I say millions?) of dollars that will likely be spent in legal fees (trials, settlements, etc.) when (not if) PHI is jeopardized.  My guess is that the HIPAA police will come down hard on early offenders to encourage better security.

Now, I know there are now smart phones with GPS devices that can help locate a lost or stolen phone.  But not before data is stolen, I would imagine.  It’s like a Lojack device in your car. They’ll find the car, but not before your tires and radio has been removed.

Why am I pointing this out?  Because this is something we should all be aware of.  The use of health apps on mobile devices amongst the general public is still in an early stage and will continue to grow leaps and bounds in the coming years.  It is far too easy to download one of these apps to your cell phone without thinking of the risk if the phone is stolen. 

And if inter-connectivity in healthcare continues to grow, how difficult will it be for a tech-savvy thief to tap into your records using a stolen cell phone’s healthcare apps? If you thought identity theft was bad, just wait until your medical history is broadcast to the masses. 

Having charges rung up on your credit card is fixable.  There are protections against it.  But what if your history of mental illness or your chronic illness is made known to all?  There’s no taking that back. As Tom Waits says, “You Can’t Unring a Bell”.

(Employers with self insured plans, please take note – your HIPAA responsibility and compliance burden is greater than those of an employer offering fully insured plans.)

Perhaps vendors will put PHI/HIPAA warnings each time an app is downloaded. In fact, they should.  Leaving it to John and Jane Q. Public to police their own health data does not strike me as the most prudent approach. 

So another word to the entrepreneurs out there: figure out how to protect lost/stolen mobile devices from PHI theft and you’ll be a go-zillionaire.  And I hope you’ll remember the guy who gave you the idea.

By the way…with all of this talk of mobile device use in healthcare, does that mean I still have to turn off my cell phone when visiting a sick relative in the hospital?  Someone needs to explain to me how this is going to work.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find the “Can You Hear Me Now” guy and see what his plan is to protect PHI.

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