Top minds in mHealth offer research agenda to address privacy, security issues

July 6, 2016 - The adoption of mobile health technology has the potential to provide great benefits in terms of improved quality of healthcare, but is not without significant privacy and security challenges, according to a paper by four thought leaders in the field.

"Privacy and Security in Mobile Health: A Research Agenda," featured in the June edition of Computer magazine, published by the IEEE Computer Society, examines the privacy and security challenges inherent in mobile health (mHealth) technology.

The paper was co-authored by David Kotz of Dartmouth College, Carl A. Gunter of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Santosh Kumar of the University of Memphis and Jonathan P. Weiner of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine. The IEEE Computer Society, with more than 60,000 members, is the world's leading membership organization dedicated to computer science and technology.

The paper notes that mobile health (mHealth) technology can contribute to reduced costs, better quality of health care, greater access to services, improved personal wellness and public health.

"These benefits will be only achieved, however, if individuals are confident in the privacy of their health-related information and if providers are confident in the security and integrity of the data collected," the paper said.

Countries are increasingly looking to information technology and mobile technology to address the challenges of managing chronic disease, which in the U.S. affects 45 percent of the population and accounts for 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion in U.S. healthcare costs.

The paper identifies six recent trends that increase the challenges facing healthcare IT systems:

  • A shift in locus of care in the healthcare system.
  • Strong economic incentives to keep patient populations healthy.
  • Increasing adoption of mobile consumer devices such as smartphones and tablets.
  • Significant emerging threats for healthcare IT systems along with new regulations to protect medical integrity and patient privacy.
  • Rapid technological developments – the use of wearable sensors and the ability to convert sensor data into measures of health and behavior.
  • A lack of expertise within healthcare organizations to secure patient data.

The paper discusses each trend and identifies research challenges that should be undertaken in order to address these challenges, an effort they hope fellow researchers will join.

"We encourage colleagues with research expertise in mobile health, medical devices, and secure computing to engage with these issues and help bring pervasive mobile-health technology to the world," said Kotz.

Kumar noted the impact of such research will be broad. "Addressing safety and privacy issues in mobile Health not only offers exciting research opportunities to make scientific advances, but it also directly impacts human life by improving health and wellness," he said.

The authors note that traditional approaches to securing healthcare systems have relied on isolating institutional systems with tools like firewalls and network access control, but it has become difficult to "lock down" medical devices or records because patients and staff now use the systems outside the traditional clinical environment. In addition, many wellness applications now employed are completely mobile.

About the co-authors on the paper

  • David Kotz is the Champion International Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Dartmouth College and a member of the U.S. Healthcare IT Policy Committee.
  • Carl A. Gunter is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also directs the Illinois Security Lab and the Health Information Technology Center.
  • Santosh Kumar is a professor and the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in Computer Science at the University of Memphis and director of the National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence for Mobile Sensor Data-to-Knowledge (MD2K).
  • Jonathan P. Weiner is a professor of health policy and management and health informatics, and director of the Center for Population Health Information Technology at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

The article can be accessed here: https://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2016/06/mco2016060022-abs.html.

Barbara Burch Kuhn
Director, Communications & Media
MD2K Center of Excellence