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Video chats with your doctor in the COVID-19 era: How safe is your medical info?

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As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country, doctors, dentists, therapists and other medical professionals are turning more frequently to online visits with their patients. This makes sense: Health professionals, too, need to practice social distancing today.

The boost in virtual doctor visits, though, brings new worries of privacy. How secure is the information shared during these online visits with healthcare providers? Can cybercriminals steal your personal health or financial information?

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help protect your privacy while using video conferences to discuss medical issues with your doctors and other healthcare providers.

Why video conferencing is on the rise in the COVID-19 era

Huge swaths of the country's population are now under shelter-in-place orders. People have been requested to only leave their homes for essential trips, such as buying food at their grocery stores, picking up prescription medicine, or purchasing products necessary for the upkeep of their homes.

Visiting a doctor when you have a serious illness counts as an essential trip. But what if you want to consult with your doctor for something less serious, such as a low-grade fever, persistent cough, or other non-life-threatening illness? Or what if you want to meet with a therapist to discuss the added stress your home quarantine is causing?

Online doctor's visits, either through chat services or video conferencing, make more sense.

Going to a physician's office could put you at serious risk of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus. The same can be said of visiting a hospital or urgent care center. The virus is extremely contagious. Being in an enclosed space with other patients may be a risk that you should only take for the most serious of illnesses or injuries.

That's where remote visits with your healthcare providers come in. You can't catch the virus from your doctor or a fellow patient if you're safely in your home during the visit.

But remote healthcare brings with it privacy risks: Your private health issues could be vulnerable to cyber snoops.

What are the privacy risks related to telemedicine?

At its most basic, telemedicine or telehealth programs connect physicians and patients through laptops, smart phones, or tablets. Patients use video conferencing services to chat with their healthcare providers through these devices.

The World Health Organization cited telemedicine as a key practice to help slow the spread of COVID-19. How popular will virtual doctor visits become during the pandemic? That's difficult to estimate, but a story by the Dallas Morning News quoted Dr. Christopher Crow, president of Catalyst Health Network in Plano, Texas, to provide some perspective.

Crow said that in February, virtual doctor visits accounted for just 1 percent of the physicians' visits by members of the Catalyst Health Network. Crow said that now, more than 80 percent of the network's patient visits could be conducted virtually.

The American Hospital Association said earlier this year that about 65 percent of hospitals were already using telemedicine to communicate with patients and other doctors. And this figure was before the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced even more people to use such services.

As virtual doctor visits become more common, hackers could try to exploit these opportunities to steal the private medical and billing information of patients. Maybe you are sending information online to your doctor about a serious health problem such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer. Or maybe you’re speaking with a healthcare provider about mental health issues or requesting a referral to a therapist.

If cybercriminals intercept emails containing this information, they can sell it on the dark web to the highest bidder, who can then use that information to blackmail you or sell it to drug manufacturers who could then bombard you with targeted ads.

Healthcare records are especially valuable on black markets because they often contain information that criminals can use to steal your identity. This might include your birth date, Social Security number, medical conditions, height and weight. Criminals can use this information to take out credit cards or loans in your name. They might be able to use it to make fraudulent credit card purchases in your name, too.

You might conclude a virtual doctor's visit by receiving your health records through email. Or maybe you'll visit your medical provider's online portal to access these records. Either way, savvy hackers may be able to steal the contents of your email messages or track the keystrokes you use to log onto your medical provider's online portal.

How can I boost my privacy during online medical visits?

How do you protect your medical information then when visiting with doctors online?

Ask your medical providers if they save your video sessions. Your healthcare providers should say "no" to this question. If doctors don't save and store your video sessions, then hackers can't access them and use them against you.

Use video-conferencing services that rely on encryption to protect your privacy. Encryption will scramble your video conferencing session into a format that is unreadable to anyone else. This can greatly decrease the chances that hackers will be able to access these sessions. Ask your healthcare providers if their virtual sessions feature end-to-end encryption. If your providers don't know or their preferred means of virtual communication don't include this protection, insist on using a video conferencing system that does.

Be careful what information you send in emails or text messages. It might seem convenient to send your doctor information about your health in an email or text. The same might be said about sending your Social Security number or health insurance information through these same channels. But resist that temptation. If you want to protect your privacy, only provide that information by phone. Don't leave an electronic record of your personal or financial information.

Use a strong password for any online portals offered by your medical providers. The stronger the password, the less likely it is that cybercriminals will be able to break into your portal and steal your medical information.

Ask your medical providers if they share your medical information with third parties. If you want the maximum amount of privacy, tell your providers that you don't approve of them sharing your medical information with any other individuals or companies unless they get your permission first.

Select the safest ways to have providers share medical information with you. You might tell doctors that you don't want to receive health information by email or text, for instance, and would prefer phone calls, instead.

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