In November 2019, Google announced it would be partnering with health system Ascension. Together, they will manage medical patient data in the cloud. The company assured patients it would be adhering to industry regulations about patient data such as HIPPA. However, many people were concerned about the security and privacy issues of Google aggregating the data of around 50 million patients.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of storing medical data in the cloud?
Upsides of Cloud-Based Medical Data Storage
There are definitely some advantages of having patient data stored online where it can be easily accessed. It may even help healthcare providers give their patients a better service.
Sharing Files Between Healthcare Providers
One frequent problem in healthcare is what happens to someone’s records when they move to a new city, state, or region. When they visit a doctor in their new location, it may be hard for that doctor to access their previous medical files. That’s because different states and organizations have different ways of sorting and storing files.
Without access to your previous medical file, your new doctor may not know about your medical history. They may also not know about existing conditions you have, or what medications you take. This is not only annoying for patients. It can also cause problems if, for example, your new doctor is not aware of an allergy you have to a particular medicine.
A similar problem occurs with sharing files between specialists. You might have a GP and a cardiologist who you visit regularly. Ideally, you would want these two doctors to be in communication. If one of them detects an issue, it will help for the other one to know. However, sharing information between providers can be difficult.
Different hospitals or clinics may not communicate well. This can lead to information not being passed to all the relevant healthcare providers.
This lack of file sharing causes problems both practical and financial. If different providers are performing duplicate tests, for example, that’s both a waste of money and a potential cause of stress for the patient. With a cloud-based system, it’s much easier for healthcare providers to share records with each other.
Particularly in the case of Google’s system, they intend to consolidate records into a readable format. That should make it easier for doctors and nurses to find the files they’re looking for.
Backing up Files in Case of Emergency
Just like backing up files on your computer, medical files are vulnerable if they are not backed up. If records are kept in a paper format, a fire or flood could potentially destroy them entirely.
A similar problem arises if a hospital system keeps electronic files but doesn’t back them up. In this case, a problem with the hospital’s software or servers could destroy the medical records.
Storing files in the cloud makes them much less vulnerable to disaster. Cloud storage isn’t a replacement for a true backup, but it’s certainly safer from disasters.
Access Files From Any Location
If you live in a big city, you may not have any problems finding a doctor or hospital near where you live. If you live in a rural area, however, this can be much harder. Some people live hours away from their nearest medical provider.
For these people, as well as for elderly people or people with mobility issues, eHealth is a growing field. This refers to the use of telecommunications for healthcare. For example, you might have a virtual doctor’s appointment using a video chat technology like Skype. There’s also mHealth, which is using mobile phones for healthcare.
In these cases, being able to access medical files from a location which may be far from the patient’s home is important. Cloud storage of medical files means it doesn’t matter how far you are from your provider. They’ll still be able to see your file when they need to.
Downsides of Cloud-Based Medical Data Storage
It’s not all rosy for cloud-based storage of medical files though. There are drawbacks to consider as well.
Potential Security Risks
Any time information is stored digitally, it is vulnerable to security risks. Hackers could access medical files, which contain highly private information.
When organizations store files centrally, providers may not be able to control the security measures around those files. If the Google and Ascension project were ever compromised, a massive amount of personal data could find its way into the wrong hands.
Another big concern is whether a company like Google can be trusted with highly sensitive data. In the past, the company has admitted that third-party apps can read your Gmail. And there have been cases of companies like Amazon having employees listen in on what people assumed were private recordings.
Lots of people worry that the same could happen with medical data. The idea of a Google employee being able to see your medical records is uncomfortable. People trust their doctors with their health information. They don’t necessarily trust a technology company.
Add this to the fact that many patients had no idea their data could be handed over to Google. Ascension was not legally required to disclose it plans with Google to its patients. But many were shocked when they learned their medical files could be accessed by a company like Google.
Monetization of Healthcare Data
Finally, there’s another issue raised by the digitization of healthcare generally. Think of a device like a Fitbit. It’s a great way to encourage people to take more exercise and be more healthy.
Some health insurance companies are already offering discounts to customers who use fitness tracking tools like Fitbit. And your employer could soon oblige you to use a fitness tracker if you want to be eligible for medical benefits.
This could lead to insurance companies charging people even more when they have a pre-existing condition. Or an insurance company not paying out claims if the customer wasn’t sufficiently active as measured by a fitness tracker.
These risks are exacerbated by storing healthcare data in the cloud. It could make it more likely for insurance companies or employers to access medical data. And it could lead to more expensive health insurance for those who already have medical conditions.
Security Risks of Medical Data
There are some upsides to moving medical data to the cloud. These include better communication between doctors, and enabling eHealth. However, there are security and privacy drawbacks to the approach too.
To learn more about the intersection of security and healthcare, you can learn about the ways that hackers threaten medical IoT devices.