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An Ultimate Guide to Secure Healthcare Application Development

21 Dec 2016
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It’s hard to imagine modern medicine without the specialized equipment that is used to diagnose the patients’ conditions and track the stages of development of various diseases. In these latter days, people identify mobile phones and other personal gadgets with such equipment with ever-increasing frequency. Mobile health technology and medical apps are becoming more and more popular. Users actively install them on their devices to count the number of steps done during the day, measure heart rate, or consult a physician.

MHealth apps vary depending on the scope of activity, target audience, and the level of privacy of the requested data. They range from simple fitness trackers to complex specialized apps that help people who are suffering from serious diseases. No matter which app type you decide to develop, it is necessary to bear in mind that you are going to deal with users' very personal data. That is why you should take the security setup and data protection seriously.

Where do I start the medical software development?

Before proceeding directly to employing healthcare development services, you need to clearly understand the concept of the application, study the legislative framework, and explore other pitfalls that you might encounter. I advise focusing on the following sequence of actions:

Analyze the target market and choose a mHealth app type

First of all, decide who you are going to develop for. There are two main users of the healthcare apps. They are ordinary people and dedicated specialists. By ordinary people, I mean both healthy people who want to monitor their health and maintain a healthy lifestyle and patients who are treating a particular disease. Dedicated specialists include the doctors of different activity profiles.

Let's check out some of the healthcare mobile apps trends. According to Statista, the number of healthcare apps for consumers in the App store significantly exceeds the number of apps for medical professionals.

Healthcare apps at Apple Store by targeted consumer

Number of healthcare apps on the Apple App Store by targeted consumer (Source: Statista)

The same source indicates that the applications for women's and children's health are more in demand than the ones for senior's health. The most popular reasons for downloading a mobile app for healthcare are motivation to exercise and goal tracking, sticking to a diet and revealing bad habits, compliance with medical prescriptions and contacting an expert.

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Let’s make a pause to check out how we created a Doctoring app for UK medical specialists.

The most popular app categories for consumers are as follows:

  • Fitness
  • Medical reference 
  • Wellness 
  • Diet and nutrition 
  • Medical condition management 
  • Compliance 
  • Reminders and alerts 
  • Remote consulting and monitoring
Medical apps for consumers

MHealth apps for consumers

As for the use of mobile devices in healthcare by professionals, Electronic Health Reporter says that 62% of doctors use tablets in their daily practice and 72% of nurses employ smartphones for their patient care. The most popular professional mHealth apps categories are as follows:

  • Information and time management (setting appointments and meetings)
  • Database maintenance and access to medical records (images, scans, electronic prescriptions) 
  • Consulting and professional assistance (text messages, voice and video calls, social networking) 
  • Access to various medical sources (medical news, journals, literature, drugs catalog) 
  • Data evaluation and decision making (laboratory research, interpretation of results, medical calculators, disease diagnosis) 
  • Patient Monitoring (health, location, rehabilitation) 
  • Health education (tests preparations, thematic studies, surgical modeling, knowledge assessment)
Healthcare apps for medical professionals by category

MHealth apps for professionals

Study the healthcare system

This step is needed not only because of legal regulations and the necessity to adhere to them but to understand the healthcare system of a particular country will help you make your application really useful and valuable.

For instance, you should be aware that the doctors and patients ratio in the developing and developed countries is significantly different. There is one medical expert for approximately 1000 patients in China and 1500 patients in India, while in the USA there is one doctor for every 350 patients. It indicates that the remote communication with a physician may be more in demand in outer areas that are far from the center and in developing countries.

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Fitness application is one of the most popular directions of the healthcare app development. Find out How to Create Your First Fitness App

It is also notable that the healthcare system in China is under social security, meaning that the government pays for it. In India, there is a large number of financing options. However, the own means of the patients still remain high. The healthcare system of the USA is mostly private. Each citizen has a medical insurance that covers the expenses when a person needs medical care. You should consider all these points when you start healthcare product development because they have a direct impact on the relationship between doctors and patients.

Adhere to the legal regulations

It is essential to release a safe and reliable app that is able to take care of the users' personal data. For that, the use of mobile technology in healthcare falls under the legislation. One of the most important legal norms to consider in the USA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It regulates the secure data sharing and transmission of data.

To find out whether your app falls under its jurisdiction, pay attention to the following parameters:

Access to the users' data

Your app is likely to fall under HIPAA regulations in case the users' data is accessed by the third parties or sheltered institutions such as doctors or hospitals.

For instance, if you want to design a consulting or patient monitoring app, most probably, you will go HIPAA-regulated because both the physician and medical facility will have access to the information about the user's condition. However, if your app helps users track sports results or follow some prescribed medications, HIPAA is not going to be involved since the users' data is not passed to someone else.

Data type

HIPAA strictly controls the data that is classified as Protected health information (PHI). According to the US law, this applies to any data that can point out the particular individual and reveal information about his / her physical or mental state.

PHI covers 18 points in total. Here is a complete list:

  • Names
  • Geographical designators smaller than state 
  • Certain dates connected with an individual, like the date of birth or death, the date of hospitalization and discharge, etc. 
  • Telephone numbers 
  • Fax numbers 
  • Contact emails 
  • Social Security numbers 
  • Clinical record numbers 
  • Medical care insurance numbers 
  • Register entry numbers 
  • Certificate and license numbers 
  • Serial numbers of cars and other identifiers of vehicles belonging to the user 
  • Serial numbers and other identifiers of devices 
  • Web URLs 
  • IP addresses 
  • Biometric personal characteristics 
  • Full face photos and any comparable images 
  • Any other unique identifiers and codes that point at a specific person

Note that the above personal data becomes PHI only when it is related to the medical information.

Software security

The last but not the least parameter of HIPAA inhering determines the level of app security. HIPAA norms pay special attention to the app development technologies aimed to protect users' data. There are a few points that are necessary to consider. They are:

User identifier

User identifier that mustn’t be accessible by the third parties. In view of this, you cannot allow logging in with an email address or social media account. Instead, let your healthcare app developers consider creating an account with the help of unique digit combinations or biometric data such as fingerprints, iris patterns, or voiceprints.

Emergency access

Emergency access to the Electronic Protected Health Information (EPHI) in an urgent situation. This is needed to enable medical institutions and other authorized personnel access the data about the patient's condition even if the system isn’t functioning normally for some reason.

Push notifications

Push notifications which should be designed so that personal data does not appear on the screen suddenly. Health app developers should also implement the feature of automatic logout. This functionality will help you protect the users from the unauthorized access of private information.

Strong encryption

Strong encryption is to be implemented during all stages of data transmission. Healthcare software developers should only use proven algorithms and standards that guarantee a high level of security.

HIPAA regulated points in medical apps

Basic aspects regulated by HIPAA

Good examples are Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and Ron Rivest, Idi Shamir and Leon Adelman (RSA) standard. They are based on the symmetric-key and asymmetric-key algorithms respectively. You should choose a particular approach taking into account your app specifically.

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Note that security setup differs depending on the selected mobile platform. Learn how to establish it on Android in our article Android as a Bodyguard or What Keeps Your Applications Secure?

If you involve email sending, consider using trusted services such as Virtu that provide a safe and reliable system for information storage and retrieval.

Follow the best practices

Following the world best practices of mobile healthcare technology will increase your chance to the creation of secure and compliant medical app. The dedicated entities such as the Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange (WEDI) and Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE) advise on the specific technologies that enhance app security. They are managed by the healthcare and IT specialists who take care of the strong medical and technical background for your app.

IHE, for example, is spearheaded by the initiative medical professionals who pay a special attention to the channels of communication used by technology systems. They promote communication standards that guarantee safe data exchange between the representatives of medical organizations and patients.

WEDI is another institution that offers purposely designed guidelines and standards of compliance. Following their sound recommendations will increase the quality of your medical app.

Contact an expert

Learning all the legal rules and technical standards is essential for healthcare app development. However, before making any decision, you need to consult an expert versed in the relevant area of activity.

Before contacting healthcare software companies, it would be great if you talk both to the lawyer and person who has a practical experience in creating medical apps. The first one can advise on the pitfalls that you may encounter when dealing with the legal framework of a given country. The second - point out to the various technologies and development approaches.

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Nutrition industry basks in popularity nowadays. Learn How to Develop a Diet and Nutrition App if you want to go great guns

Consider also involving industry experts that can guide you through the special aspects of the healthcare sector. Try to talk to the dedicated specialist who is directly relevant to the area you work in. For example, if your app tracks the total level of physical activity, talk to a physical therapist or coach, if it measures your pulse and blood pressure, contact a cardiologist, if it advises on healthy eating, consult a nutritionist.

Provide independent verification

The medical app developers do know your product better than anybody else. However, due to too much “close contact” with the app over a very long period of time, the chances are that they may omit some details. As you may have understood, any leak of information is critical for a medical application. That is why it is advisable to involve third party specialists who can verify the compliance and security of your app.

You may refer, for example, to Toltec Ventures or any other organization that specializes in validation and verification activities. Having passed the necessary procedures and received official confirmation, you can share this information so that potential customers know that your app is officially approved.

Is a mHealth app a good choice at all?

The above recommendations may implant doubt in your mind as for the feasibility of the medical app implementation. You might come to the conclusion that medical app development requires too much time and efforts. Well, I cannot deny it. However, the risk is definitely worth the reward.

A healthy lifestyle is currently trendy. People all over the world want to eat healthy food, work out, and learn about the possible diseases they may suffer just in time. Opting for this business area, you automatically get a large base of potential customers.

Nevertheless, creating a medical app without exterior help may be quite challenging. That is why it is reasonable to cooperate with experienced medical software development companies in order to produce a high-quality product.

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