Patients don't think payers, providers can protect their data, survey finds

Patients are skeptical of healthcare industry players’ ability to protect their data—and believe health insurers to be the worst at doing so, a new survey shows. 

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Politico surveyed (PDF) 1,009 adults in mid-July and found that just 17% have a “great deal” of faith that their health plan will protect their data. 

By contrast, 24% said they had a “great deal” of trust in their hospital to protect their data, and 34% said the same about their physician’s office. In addition, 22% of respondents said they had “not very much” trust in their insurer to protect their data, and 17% said they had no trust at all. 

The firms that fared the worst on the survey, however, were online search engines and social media sites. Only 7% said they have a “great deal” of trust in search engines such as Google to protect their data, and only 3% said the same about social media platforms. 

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“Broadly, while many Americans express serious misgivings about data privacy when it comes to social media sites and internet search engines, they report substantially more trust that their private health information will remain secure,” the researchers wrote. 

That patients would be concerned about the safety of their healthcare data should come as no surprise—large data breaches impacting thousands or even millions of patients are common. Earlier this year, experts estimated that a single healthcare data breach cost an average of $6.5 million

Plus, recent research suggests nearly a third of healthcare workers have had no cybersecurity training

The report also breaks down patients’ trust in these institutions to protect their data based on political affiliation. For example, 22% of Democrats had a “great deal” of trust in insurers to protect their data, while 17% of Republicans and 13% of independents said the same. 

By comparison, 28% of Democrats said they had a “great deal” of trust in hospitals to protect their data, as did 26% of Republicans and 19% of independents. In addition, 36% of Democrats, 37% of Republicans and 31% of independents have a “great deal” of faith in their doctor’s office to protect their data. 

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The survey also flagged another interesting trend: A notable number of patients are concerned their searches for health information online could come back to haunt them. 

Of the respondents who had searched for such information at some point, 25% said they were “very concerned” and 25% said they were “somewhat concerned” that information on what they searched could be used to harm them in the future, such as through denied healthcare benefits or by costing them a job. 

In addition, 30% of those who said they searched for health information were “very concerned” that their search history could be used to sell medical products to them. Twenty-seven percent were “somewhat concerned.” 

Plus, 28% of those who used search engines to find health data said they were “very concerned” that their search history could make it harder for them to obtain care. An additional 25% said they were “somewhat concerned” about this.