Health Vs. Hackers: Cloud-Connected Cardiac Care

Larry Alton

If you’ve ever checked your Fitbit to monitor how you slept or consulted your phone to see how many steps you’ve taken, then you understand the role technology can play in your physical health. Today, that connection is more important than ever, as cloud-connected technology promises to connect our bodies to the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve health outcomes.

High-tech heart health

One pioneering area where this is happening is cardiac care.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Many people with chronic cardiac conditions live with a pacemaker to maintain a healthy heart rhythm. These patients may have heart damage from previous heart attacks, ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, or shortness of breath due to heart rate abnormalities.

Pacemakers are relatively easy to implant and maintain, and they could soon provide doctors with much more feedback and data about a patient’s cardiac activity.

For example, many pacemakers already supply patient location data. This information may not be set to upload continuously, but it is tracked along with other heart activity data and uploaded to a secure server during medical appointments.

The combination of cloud-connected devices such as pacemakers and patient data could make patients vulnerable to hackers. It’s important for healthcare professionals and patients alike to understand how we use these tools and how patients are protected.

Disciplining data

A pacemaker isn’t the first medical tech tool to raise data security concerns, but it is a leading example of an IoT-connected device that involves bodily access. Hackers who gain access to patient files, as happened during the WannaCry attacks, is certainly committing a breach of privacy, but rest assured—so far they can’t short-circuit a heart.

Still, medical IoT forces us to reckon with digital security in new ways. Consider, for example, the increasing use of algorithms and AI in cardiac diagnostics and care, such as the new eye-scanning technology that can assess cardiovascular health by studying the veins of the retinal fundus, an area at the back of the eyeball. This tool doesn’t simply scan the eye and leave the interpretation to doctors; it uses an algorithm to reach conclusions based on past cases and sophisticated machine learning.

This kind of non-invasive study could provide patients with countless benefits, but outside interference with the algorithm could also result in falsified results. Many types of diagnostic equipment today have arrived at this juncture between care and risk.

In general, the benefits of medical IoT far exceed the risks. This is true of pacemakers, MRI machines, insulin pumps, and many other devices. But patients and healthcare professionals should keep in mind that the more data collected, the greater the security risk. For patients, that may mean questioning whether to enter sensitive medical data into a smartphone, for example, or whether to use the latest popular healthcare wearable device.

While healthcare technology could pose security risks, it doesn’t mean we should reject these potentially life-saving devices. Every interaction with a computer or smartphone will be a balancing act in the era of Big Data.

For more on this topic, see Stitching Up Your Healthcare Data.

About Larry Alton

Larry is a freelance marketing & technology consultant with a background in IT. Follow him on Twitter @LarryAlton3.