OPINION: Paper is our last defense against cyber attacks in health

Published 2:56 pm Saturday, September 9, 2023

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It’s no secret that the United States of America has powerful enemies. Every day, adversaries like Russia and China conspire to weaken America at home and abroad because our way of life stands opposed to their autocratic rule.

Many attacks against the US occur in cyberspace, given we increasingly rely on advanced technology to live our lives. Not only does our military need advanced technology to defend the homeland, but civilians likewise need it for everyday life. Our banks, gas stations, grocery stores, hospitals, and critical infrastructure cannot function without high-tech servers and software. As a result, enemy nations deploy hackers to infiltrate the systems that ensure our infrastructure runs correctly.

Cyberattacks especially threaten our healthcare system. Devastating cyberattacks against healthcare organizations occur quite often. Last month, a cyberattack targeting Prospect Medical Holdings disrupted patient care at several hospitals and clinics in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and California. Prospect’s facilities, including emergency rooms, either shut down or limited services. They also lost access to digital medical records. Without digital records, Prospect relied on their printed records. Indeed, Americans’ medical records are
quite vulnerable to attack. From 2009 to July 2023, U.S. medical organizations suffered 5,478 data breaches, affecting approximately 423 million medical records. In a world plagued with frequent cyberattacks, we must maintain tangible backups of digital medical records.

Pharmacies also fall victim to cyberattacks. In May, the pharmacy network PharMerica suffered a data breach exposing the Protected Health Information of 2 million patients. These breaches can postpone pharmacy care, risking the lives of millions of Americans who rely on prescription medication while putting their personal information in the wrong hands. Therefore, pharmacists and their patients must keep printed patient records to keep patients safe.

One critically important printed record is patient medication information (PMI), the medication summary, and instructions attached to prescriptions. Pharmacists refer to PMI when advising patients, and patients depend on PMI to take their medication correctly. More than a hundred thousand people die annually in the U.S. from medication non-adherence, and many more would die without having printed patient medication information given to them when they pick up their prescription.

The pharmaceutical industry is trying to lobby to put PMI online to cut costs. In Congress, pharmaceutical companies are using their deep pockets to sway lawmakers to digitize PMI completely. In addition, Big Pharma is probably thrilled the FDA is attempting to mandate that the default PMI format be digital and to force pharmacies to print this information upon request.

Not only would these actions marginalize poor and elderly communities without internet access, as well as bankrupt pharmacies that can’t afford to print all that information, but they would also threaten our national security and Americans’ personal health data. Suppose China can suddenly steal, alter, or expunge digital patient medication information at the press of a button. In that case, many Americans will be left vulnerable to identity theft and incorrect medication usage without printed versions. We must protect printed PMI to protect American patients.

Luckily, sensible legislators in Congress are taking action. The Patients’ Right to Know Their Medication Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of representatives, would mandate that drug manufacturers print this vital medication information in a way that’s easily understandable and accessible for every patient. If our country wants to protect our national security, our healthcare system, and millions of Americans’ healthcare data, Congress must pass this legislation.

Wayne Sasser represents Stanly and Montgomery counties in the N.C. House.