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Balancing benefits with risks challenge healthcare as virtual services climb

August 27, 2021
Business Affairs Health IT
Peter Reilly
By Peter Reilly

Telemedicine has been evolving since the late 1960s, but it took the global COVID-19 pandemic for healthcare providers to jump on the bandwagon in a big way. Today, for all that virtual care helped kept the industry afloat during the crisis, the challenge ahead is balancing the benefits with the risks.

Virtual healthcare deployment has understandably exploded since last March among just about every type of clinical professional. It’s a trend that’s only gaining momentum: 75% of providers look for it to account for 40%, if not more, of their businesses in the future.

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Thanks to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), virtual care jumped into everyone’s awareness after interstate licensing requirements for medical professionals were waived early in the pandemic to facilitate care during the COVID lockdown. It cleared the way for reimbursement at the same rate as in-person services, and most private insurers followed suit.

Today, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are grappling with legislation to make the changes permanent, but no one’s making big money bets on the likely outcome. And while they wrangle over the matter, more immediate issues need addressing by the industry now. One is the increased risk of cyber intrusions. Virtual care presents yet another opening for hackers, the downside to the digitization that’s transforming healthcare. The other is the added exposure to malpractice claims given growing reliance with virtual care on the camera’s eye, versus the human’s, for diagnoses.

The costly and growing problem of cyber attacks
Scripps Health’s online operations were suspending for almost four weeks in May after a ransomware attack compromised the personal and financial information of over 147,000 patients, staff and physicians. While the health system gave few details, ransomware attacks hold records hostage until payments – some of which have surpassed $2 million – are made.

Some medical practices have folded, unable to recreate their records and facing big liabilities with their compromise. The problem of cyber crime, most notably ransomware, skyrocketed 470% with the pandemic; the black market value of health records can range from $250 to $1,000 (or more) per record, versus $5.40 on average for payment cards .

It’s not just healthcare systems and groups whose technologies may present easy openings to cyber criminals. Vendors – like businesses that provide billing or insurance reimbursement services to the industry – were responsible for 75% of the exposures in 2020, according to one report . Another pressure: cybersecurity testing and measures weren’t up to the explosion in use of virtual care, especially with mobile apps, one leading digital platform security firm noted . He attributed it to a lack of “security maturity” among app developers.

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