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  • Anushree Jha

Patient Privacy in Digital Age

Anushree Jha,

University of Mumbai

Patient Privacy in Digital Age

Introduction

Various industries have become digitalised throughout the world in recent years. The healthcare industry has also undergone this transformative shift following technological advancements, offering numerous benefits like efficient healthcare delivery, convenient diagnoses and improved patient outcomes. However, this digital evolution raises concerns about the protection of sensitive patient information. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act , 2023 (DPDPA) was introduced to ensure patient privacy amid the surge in digital healthcare practices. This comprehensive article aims to understand the act briefly, about the issue of “patient privacy in the digital age”.

The Digital Personal Data Protection Act of India received presidential assent in August 2023, which formalised this data protection law nationwide. This Act must be complied with by all the medical institutes in India, along with all the Indian healthcare practitioners concerning how individual health data is handled.[i]

The digitization of healthcare introduced several tools and methods for improving healthcare services like keeping the patient info safely in one location and introducing software that makes healthcare data more accessible to patients.[ii] Such individual health data is one of the most sensitive and personal pieces of information and it is of utmost importance that such information be dealt with precaution to ensure its security. Such ‘data’ includes medical history, diagnostic reports, treatment plans, prescriptions, and even genetic information. It’s a legal and moral obligation to maintain the privacy and secrecy of such data. This duty is paramount in maintaining trust between healthcare providers and patients[iii].

Objective of the Act:-  This Act is a comprehensive framework made to regulate the processing of all personal data in India. It aims to establish a balance between the free flow of information and safeguarding individual privacy and recognizes the critical importance of protecting sensitive data in the healthcare sector.

Challenges in Patient Privacy in the Digital Age[iv]:- Various challenges pose a nuisance to data security while navigating the world of healthcare data. Some of them are given below:

  1. Health Apps and Wearables: - The widespread use of health applications and wearables has enabled individuals to monitor their health which leads to the generation of sensitive data which raises concerns about its use and access. The DPDPA seeks to address this by establishing guidelines for the collection, processing, and storage of health-related data.

  2. Telemedicine and Electronic Health Records: - The adoption of remote healthcare consultations has surged recently. While this offers convenience, it also poses challenges to patient privacy, as these consultations over digital platforms may not be adequately secure. The DPDPA emphasizes the need for secure processing and storage of electronic health records, ensuring confidentiality.

  3. Data Breaches and Cybersecurity Threats: - The digitization of healthcare records leads to the risk of data breaches and cyber threats. Unauthorized access to patient data jeopardizes individual privacy and brings severe consequences for healthcare providers. The DPDPA mandates stringent measures to protect against data breaches, emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity practices in healthcare.

Key Provisions of the Digital Personal Data Protection Act: 

  1. Consent and Purpose Limitation: - A strong emphasis is placed on obtaining explicit consent from individuals before collecting and processing their data. Additionally, it introduces the principle of purpose limitation, ensuring that data is only used for the specific purpose for which consent was granted i.e. it is not misused for purposes unrelated to medical treatment.

  2. Data Localization: - The DPDPA introduces the concept of data localization, requiring entities to store critical personal data within Indian borders. This provision is significant in the healthcare sector, where confidentiality is paramount.

  3. Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA): - The Act mandates the conduct of DPIAs for data processing activities that carry a high risk to individuals. In the healthcare sector, DPIAs become a crucial tool to identify and mitigate potential risks to patient privacy.

  4. Rights of Data Subjects: - The DPDPA empowers individuals by granting them specific rights over their data. This includes the right to access their health records, correct inaccuracies, and even request the deletion of data under certain circumstances. These provisions enhance transparency and give patients greater control over their sensitive health information.

  5. Appointment of Data Protection Officers[v]:- To ensure compliance with the Act, organizations processing personal data, including healthcare entities, are required to appoint a DPO. This individual is responsible for overseeing data protection measures and fostering compliance.

Impact on Healthcare Providers:

The DPDPA imposes a significant regulatory burden on healthcare providers, necessitating a shift in how they manage patient data. While compliance with the Act may pose initial challenges, the long-term benefits are substantial.

1.Enhanced Trust and Patient Engagement: - Strict adherence to the DPDPA instils confidence in patients, assuring them that their sensitive health information is handled with the utmost care. This enhanced trust can contribute to increased patient engagement and willingness to share accurate information with healthcare providers, ultimately improving the quality of healthcare delivery.

2.Standardization of Data Protection Practices: - The DPDPA provides a standardized framework for data protection, streamlining practices across the healthcare sector. This standardization not only simplifies compliance efforts for healthcare providers but also ensures a consistent approach to safeguarding patient privacy.

3.Investment in Cybersecurity Measures: - The Act's emphasis on cybersecurity compels healthcare providers to invest in robust measures to protect patient data from unauthorized access and cyber threats. This not only protects patients but also strengthens the overall resilience of healthcare systems against evolving cybersecurity challenges.

4.Facilitation of Research and Innovation: - While stringent, the DPDPA does not hinder legitimate research activities. Instead, it establishes clear guidelines for the ethical and legal processing of health data for research purposes. This facilitates innovation and advancements in medical research while ensuring that patient privacy remains a top priority.

Patient Privacy in Digital Age

Challenges associated with the Act[vi]:- Certain challenges have arisen in enforcing the Act. These include: - 

1.Resource Constraints: - Small and medium-sized healthcare providers may face challenges in allocating resources for implementing data protection measures. The government must provide support and guidance to ensure that these entities can achieve compliance without compromising the quality of healthcare services.

2.Interoperability and Data Sharing: - The DPDPA's emphasis on data localization may pose challenges in terms of interoperability and seamless data sharing between healthcare providers. The efficient exchange of medical information is crucial for the effective functioning of the healthcare ecosystem.

3.Education and Awareness: - Achieving widespread compliance requires a concerted effort to educate healthcare professionals, administrators, and patients about the implications of the DPDPA by raising awareness.

Conclusion

The Digital Personal Data Protection Act emerges as a critical safeguard for patient privacy in India. While its implementation may present challenges, the long-term benefits, including enhanced trust, standardized data protection practices, and the promotion of research and innovation, make it a cornerstone in ensuring the responsible and ethical use of personal health information[vii].

This Act stands as a testament to the nation's commitment to balancing technological progress with the protection of individual privacy in the realm of healthcare with great potential to set a global standard for ensuring digital patient privacy.

References

[ii] Metty Paul et al., Digitization of Healthcare Sector: A Study on privacy and security concerns, ICTExpress,https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405959523000243#:~:text=Digitization%20of%20healthcare%20has%20introduced,data%20more%20accessible%20to%20patients. (last visited Feb. 10, 2024).

[iii] Medicover Hospitals, Secure Health Data: Privacy Protection in Digital Era, Best Hospitals in India | Medicover Hospitals, https://www.medicoverhospitals.in/articles/secure-health-data-protecting-privacy-in-digital-age (last visited Feb. 10, 2024).

[iv] Grande, D., Health Policy and Privacy Challenges Associated With Digital Technology, National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7348687/ (last visited Feb. 10, 2024).

[v] THE DIGITAL PERSONAL DATA PROTECTION ACT, 2023 (ACT NO. 22 OF 2023)

[vi] Personal Digital Data Protection Law: Why challenge lies in its implementation (2023), Business Today,https://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/the-buzz/story/personal-digital-data-protection-law-why-challenge-lies-in-its-implementation-397171-2023-09-06 (last visited Feb. 10, 2024).

[vii] G.D., Personal Health Informatics: New tools and roles for Health Care, Studies in health technology and informatics, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36300402/ (last visited 10.2.2024).

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