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What Are The Security Risks in Healthcare Apps? The Expert’s Guide 

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Why is security important in healthcare? 

Since the introduction of smartphones, technological devices have become increasingly important in our lives. Phones used to have the only function of contacting people via phone calls, but now they can be used for much more complex tasks in all aspects of our lives. Healthcare is no exception, and using your phone as an adjunct in this area can be both practical and risky. In the following article, you will see what are some security risks in healthcare that apps can pose in terms of confidential information, but also how you can make the right decisions to address these risks.

Most used healthcare app types

When thinking about mobile health (also called mHealth) apps, one usually only thinks about telemedicine, but, in reality, app stores offer a variety of apps with different functions that patients and doctors can use for efficient communication and treatment.

Medical record management apps

Some of the most commonly used mHealth apps are dedicated to medical record management. These apps facilitate keeping track of medical conditions, treatment and further details, and enable doctors to access and update this information remotely. This way, patients can change doctors and receive the attention of a specialist without worrying about explaining their medical history themselves, and missing important details in the process.

Telemedicine apps

This type of app allows doctors and patients to communicate remotely in the case of illnesses that do not require an in-person meeting. This way, many patients do not need to attend medical centers, reducing waiting time for those who do require attention in person and avoiding contact with people carrying infectious diseases.

Health monitoring apps

Healthcare centers are usually crowded with patients who are hospitalized and need continuous monitoring. However, many times their condition does not represent an existing danger, and that’s when monitoring apps can help. In combination with monitoring devices, patients can seamlessly track their vital signs and behavior to create their digital phenotyping profile with mobile apps, which simultaneously report the results to doctors. Consequently, hospitals can accommodate patients with higher life-threatening risks while keeping track of those with low complexities.

Real-time alerts

In combination with health monitoring apps come real-time alerts. Depending on the metric analyzed, doctors may not need instant reporting, but it may be necessary in the case of medical situations that require quick attention. Apps can be very helpful in this matter, as doctors receive notifications on their phones in real-time, and can act accordingly.

Medication management apps

Many patients find it hard to maintain a consistent treatment plan, especially in the case of chronic intakes. For instance, tuberculosis requires patients to take pills for a period of six months. The same happens with contraception, as women need to take a daily pill for as long as they wish. For this reason, treatment adherence can be improved with periodic notifications reminding patients to take their medicine and allowing doctors to follow up on treatment progress.

Health information sharing apps

As with clinical records, some apps are used to save specific medical analyses and share them with your doctor. Therefore, it is possible to have X-rays, MRIs or blood tests sent to physicians and have them checked without the need for an appointment in person. These apps can also be useful among doctors and their teams for internal revision. Using this kind of secure texting apps for healthcare instead of regular messaging platforms ensures the proper implementation of privacy protocols, especially when making sure that even the embedded virtual keyboard is also compliant with regulations. By using the Fleksy SDK, no data is breached through the in-app virtual keyboard for healthcare, as companies can create their own using the security-centered building blocks contained in the SDK.

What are the main risks of health apps?

Besides the benefits that all the mentioned mHealth apps can bring, cybersecurity measures must be observed to minimize the following privacy risks.

Data breaches

Data leakage is one of the most common and most risky instances of cybersecurity hazards. These breaches occur when security protocols are not properly implemented within the app and could allow hackers to access patient health information (PHI), which is confidential and should only be available to users with authorized access.

Unauthorized access

In addition to developing the correct security protocols, there is a layer of patient responsibility that must be taken care of. Even if apps are correctly developed to avoid virtual hacking, some of them do not implement adequate security measures to prevent undesired people from accessing the platform. For this reason, face recognition, passwords or fingerprint authentication must be incorporated into the tool.

Vulnerabilities in communication

When using messaging features within mHealth apps, communication must be safely kept within the device but also encrypted when in transit to protect against message interception.

Insecure data storage

As previously mentioned, some apps involve sending and receiving confidential files with PHI for patients and doctors to see. While apps themselves can be secure, they may save this documentation in local files within the device. If these files aren’t encrypted, the device could be hacked and, even if the mHealth app itself is properly secured, the files may still be accessible, as they are no longer stored within the app.

Third-party integrations

In line with the previous point, some apps may include third-party APIs, like virtual keyboards, which may not be successfully protected and lead to data breaches. All the layers in which information can be stored or displayed must be taken into consideration and safeguarded to ensure that no data breaches occur. A critical case that involved third-party hazards was the Morley Companies case. This company offers business services to several Fortune 500 companies, including various healthcare providers. As a result, more than 500,000 patient records were affected, breaching their PHI. The worst part about this case is that potential victims were notified in February 2022, six months after the company found out about the data breach, thus violating the HIPAA Breach Notification rule. Read more about this case here.

How to build secure mobile apps for healthcare?

Although there are many aspects to be considered when building a healthcare app, there is a set of essential measures that any app developer should implement and subsequently expand to guarantee data privacy.

Two-factor authentication 

This is a very simple but effective method to prevent unwanted access to healthcare apps. Requesting users to provide an extra layer of protection can make all the difference in keeping data safe. This way, only authorized users can enter mHealth apps.

Encryption for data transmission

When messages are sent through mHealth apps, they must be end-to-end encrypted to prevent message interception. That’s why doctors and patients should only communicate through specialized apps, as regular messaging platforms may not comply with all the measures necessary to protect personal data.

Secure cloud storage solutions

As we have said before, some apps may be perfectly safe against data leaks, but they save information on the user’s personal device, which is indeed vulnerable to cybersecurity dangers. To avoid this, apps can use their own cloud storage for users to access information without really saving it locally, thereby keeping data from being compromised.

Security assessments for integrations

Once you have finished developing your app, and even if you believe you have it all covered, ask an expert to put it to the test. The truth is that as cybersecurity advances, so do insecurity hazards, and experts are the only ones who are updated on this matter. 

Regulatory compliance in the healthcare industry (HIPAA and GDPR regulations)

Making cybersecurity one of your priorities will keep your users’ information safe, making them trust you and support your apps, but it is also a legal requirement. There are two main regulatory protocols all healthcare apps should comply with to avoid infractions, which are HIPAA and GDPR regulations. Both regulatory frames represent a set of guidelines that any healthcare provider should follow, although the GDPR also applies to general data security, not just healthcare. These two regulations apply to different locations, as HIPAA was created by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, while the GDPR is applicable across the European continent. 

None of these two regulations offer a legal certification to ensure that companies comply with them, but some private companies can assess companies and offer certifications. However, as these are independent bodies, these certifications are not 100% reliable in determining compliance. 

For companies wishing to comply with any of these regulations, whether for legal or user engagement purposes, it is of utmost importance to stay up-to-date with the latest HIPAA and GDPR requirements.

Build security-first healthcare apps with Fleksy

To tackle the misuse of third-party virtual keyboards within mHealth apps or embedded in devices, developers can incorporate their own privacy-compliant in-app keyboards to avoid the risks mentioned above. Using the Fleksy SDK will provide you with the building blocks to create your own virtual keyboard, suitable to your needs, without the hassle of starting completely from scratch and, therefore, reducing development time and costs. The most important part about Fleksy, is that we are constantly updating our security protocols to stay compliant with the main regulatory controls, ensuring that your apps stay safe for your users. Healthcare companies like Ksana Vira, Neurametrix and nQ Medical already have apps powered by Fleksy, as do businesses in the financial, cybersecurity and AR/VR industries. 


What are the requirements for a healthcare app?

The main requirement for privacy-first healthcare apps is complying with regulatory bodies, which vary depending on the target market. The most well-known regulations are HIPAA and GDPR, which include end-to-end encryption, protected login, and cloud storage. Nevertheless, these regulations are constantly updated, so continuous improvements are necessary to stay compliant.

What are the digital security risks associated with health?

Healthcare apps contain Personal Health Information (PHI), which is medical information that should be kept private. For this reason, patient-doctor communication must be protected, as well as testing reports and medical records.

What are four data protection best practices for healthcare organizations?

Although there are plenty of points to consider when developing a data protection strategy, there are a few which are essential. These are: end-to-end encryption, cloud storage, two-factor authentication login, and secure third-party implementations.

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