How can nurses safeguard patient confidentiality in the wake of reports of National Health Service (NHS) computers being hacked, making patient records vulnerable to exploitation?
An investigation by Milmo (2016a) in ‘i’ newspaper recently reported that the NHS is coming under attack from cyber blackmailers with increasing frequency. The blackmailers typically threaten to corrupt NHS computer systems by activating internet viruses, called ‘ransomware’ which can be sent to NHS computers undetected and which, if activated, can lead to patients’ medical records becoming vulnerable to exploitation. The data held within these records more highly valued to criminals than bank details, according to Europol.
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So far, 28 UK NHS trusts have received ransomware attacks in the last year, four of which were reported as leading to breaches of data protection and confidentiality laws (Milmo, 2016b). NHS digital, which is responsible for cyber security in the Health Service in England has denied that patient records had been accessed, but eight London Hospital trusts would not comment.
Individual NHS trusts are responsible for safeguarding patient data and must report any breaches to NHS digital. All registered nurses, and those under their supervision such as health care assistants, whether employed in the NHS or the private sector have a professional responsibility to protect patient’s privacy and confidentiality (Nursing and Midwifery Council, (NMC), 2015:6).
General advice provided by Myers et al., (2008) includes maintaining vigilance for inappropriate information disclosure, avoiding making non-electronic copies of patient related information, ensuring awareness of local data protection policies and that they are complied with. As key communicators between different professionals within multidisciplinary care teams, nurses must balance the need to communicate with those involved in patient care with ensuring that sensitive information is only provided to those who can demonstrate clear need for it, and can guarantee its security. Other precautions include not sending any patient related information using open (i.e., non -encrypted) servers such as Gmail, and advising patients not to include personal data in social media or text messaging (Groshong & Phillips, 2015).
Groshong, L. and Phillips, D., 2015. The impact of electronic communication on confidentiality in clinical social work practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 43(2), pp.142-150.
Milmo, C., 2016a Hackers attack at least 28 NHS trusts with cyber blackmail plot. ‘i’, 10th October, 2016 pp. 6-7
Milmo, C., 2016b Health records worth much more than bank details. ‘i’, 10th October, 2016 p7
Myers, J., Frieden, T.R., Bherwani, K.M. and Henning, K.J., 2008. Ethics in public health research: privacy and public health at risk: public health confidentiality in the digital age. American Journal of Public Health, 98(5), pp.793-801.
Nursing and Midwifery Council 2015. The Code: professional standards of practice and behaviour for nurses and midwives [online] available at https://www.nmc.org.uk/globalassets/sitedocuments/nmc-publications/nmc-code.pdf accessed 8th October 2016
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