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Hospitals collecting data for COVID-19 response face privacy, security concerns

Collecting and sharing data on inventories or a patient's health status has become a crucial strategy for U.S. hospitals, health systems and government agencies combating the coronavirus pandemic.

Information regarding available resources like hospital beds, personal protective equipment and ventilators — most of which have been in short supply during the pandemic — have helped hospitals across the U.S. to prepare for patient surges and work around equipment shortages, according to Jason Krantz, CEO of the healthcare data company Definitive Healthcare LLC.

"The [data] sharing that we've seen has really been unprecedented," Krantz told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

SNL ImageJason Krantz, CEO of Definitive Healthcare
Source: Definitive Healthcare

Data sharing enabled healthcare providers and government health agencies to track the spread of the virus as the number of coronavirus patients dramatically climbed in the U.S. The effort also provided a glimpse into how the virus was affecting facilities in different regions of the country and helped shape providers' and states' response plans.

As the pandemic unfolds, healthcare providers like hospitals and nursing homes are recording and sharing coronavirus-related data with federal and state health agencies sometimes on a daily basis. And some of the world's largest technology companies have joined the effort to use health data to end the outbreak, which has killed at least 400,000 people globally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

However, concerns around cyberattacks and privacy risks have increased along with the growing reliance on data and technology, and experts say privacy protections need to be a priority during the crisis.

On the frontlines

One hospital on the frontlines of this crisis is Providence St. Joseph Health, a Washington state-based health system that treated some of the earliest U.S. patients with the coronavirus illness COVID-19. Providence is collecting and sharing hundreds of different data points with federal health agencies and seven state governments to aid their responses to the crisis, according to Ali Santore, the system's group vice president of government affairs.

For example, the health system reports hospital capacity data to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in-house laboratory testing data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Santore said.

As individual facilities focus on treating people with COVID-19 or on preparing for a surge in patients, Definitive Healthcare has seen states sharing a greater level of data "both in terms of speed … and the willingness to share it with the industry," Krantz said.

Keeping up with the new data-sharing requirements was difficult for some hospitals that were also treating patients amid substantial volume surges, according to Santore.

Over the last several years, Providence, which has 51 hospitals in its system, has redesigned its strategy to focus on using technology and data to improve operations and patient care. This strategy can be seen in a handful of acquisitions of tech-driven companies going back to 2015.

Even before the pandemic hit the U.S., the hospital system partnered with Microsoft Corp. to create what Providence CFO Venkat Bhamidipati called the "hospital of the future."

However, many changes that have directly come out of responding to the pandemic, including collecting, sharing and relying on patient and hospital data, will define how the system operates going forward.

"Everything has changed about how we operate," Santore said. "We are not looking at going back to the status quo in any sense."

SNL Image

Tech meets contact tracing

In addition to monitoring COVID-19, the healthcare industry is interested in stopping its spread.

"Obviously, testing for this type of thing, there's going to be heavy investment in the future and just helping health systems figure out what is the game plan for dealing with this if and when it happens again," said Krantz.

One investment that tech companies and public health authorities are making is in contact-tracing applications.

These applications are designed to track and stop the spread of COVID-19 by letting people who have not shown symptoms know they may be at risk and to guide them to COVID-19 resources.

The joint exposure notification application programming interface, or API, of Apple Inc. and Google LLC, whose parent company is Alphabet Inc., uses Bluetooth to notify people when they have come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Other apps, like "Corona map" in South Korea, use location-based services to identify COVID-19 hot-spots.

While experts agree that data collected from these applications may be essential to stopping the coronavirus, they disagree about how long the healthcare industry should invest in these technologies.

Contact-tracing applications should be used only during the pandemic, said Jennifer Granick, the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"This is a particular crisis for a particular reason based in a lot of ways on details about how contagious this virus is, the way in which it's contagious, the symptoms that it gives people, the fact that it can be spread asymptomatically; those are specific things," Granick said.

Krantz said contact-tracing applications could be used for other contagious illnesses like influenza, and he anticipates investment in these technologies in a post-COVID world.

"There will be a huge amount of money and resources over the next two to three years, once we sort of get past the immediate concern of [the pandemic]," said Krantz.

Cyberattacks on the rise

With the implementation of new technologies to track COVID-19 data has come new concerns about privacy and cybersecurity.

One concern about the contact tracing apps is the risks of false positives regardless of how much protection is built into them, according to Granick.

Aside from individuals, major health organizations also have reason to be concerned about their privacy during the pandemic.

Amidst cyberattack attempts on the World Health Organization and other health entities, federal law enforcement agencies released a statement saying Chinese hackers were trying to steal U.S. research related to COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.

A survey of 100 C-suite level members of healthcare companies run in November 2019 by BDO showed that concern about cybersecurity was one of the top threats to digital adoption in healthcare — 34% of respondents said cyberattacks were their companies' biggest digital threats.

Providence has not been immune to these attacks. According to representatives, phishing and external attack attempts against the system have gone up 50% during the crisis.

"There's work to be done on the security side," said Definitive Healthcare's Krantz. "There'll be a double down to the investment of that after the pandemic is over, in order to allow more data sharing to continue in the future."

SNL Image Apple-Google's exposure notification app uses Bluetooth to notify people of COVID-19 exposure.
Source: Google