5 Steps to Build a Secure mHealth Apps​

Technology is fast-moving and fast-changing, advancing with subsequent evolutions of security threats, which often seek steps ahead. With the resulting impact on society, many have opted for mobile services, convenience at the helm of their preference.

Thus, among other applications, the medical industry has seen a scale in the need for and use of mHealth apps, or otherwise, mobile health applications.

However, healthcare providers and their patients appreciate the cruciality of data security and privacy. Industry experts have the important task of offering both advanced telehealth solutions. Threats can never be underestimated, as they evolve in form and effect. Building secure mHealth apps ease worries surrounding technological advancements.

Why is app privacy important to medical care?

Security is sought where need be. In medical care, data security and privacy are critical; but why? Consider the vast health data and their sensitive, personal nature. Such cannot fall into the wrong hands—it could result in devastating effects to the affected patient(s) and healthcare institution(s)/professional(s).

Mobile health apps privacy through stringent data security measures raises the confidence in their use. It is not an easy decision to lay one’s health information or healthcare data in the hands of a third party.

Therefore, building healthcare applications in the steps below can put the patient-healthcare professional/institution relationship healthy.

Building healthcare applications:

Consider five essential steps when building healthcare apps for data protection in a healthcare environment.

1. Mobile security for healthcare: conduct research for regulatory compliance

Regulations by various laws and governments have established grounds for the extensive and specific protection of patient data. These regulations uphold security and privacy by inhibiting the conduct of healthcare providers when handling patient data.

An important step to building a successful mHealth app is good acquaintance with the regulations in place and their compliance. Thorough research is thus necessary. Note that different governments and legal bodies have varying regulations. Non-compliance with regulations can result in legal implications on healthcare providers, which may, in turn, affect the providence of proper care.

Nevertheless, it is not only governments and legal bodies that could cause a variation in the relevant legal regulations/compliance standards; data variations, app functionality, and the region of use are other possible reasons. Look into these different standards, exploring all specifics and their essentialness.

One of the notable critical policies, which may be unique to regions of mHealth apps use, is on healthcare personnel conduct in handling patient data. Healthcare and patient data also vary, thus other specific policies may be in place for the upholding of privacy and security.

2. Ensure medical mobile app security through encryption

Healthcare services are better-provided with sufficient information about a patient. Therefore, mHealth app developers have a task to establish trust with their app users; this, in turn, creates a safe and comfortable environment for sharing necessary information with one’s preferred healthcare provider.

However, failures can arise when threats sneak into vulnerable systems. The loss or breach of patient data and privacy invites legal consequences to healthcare providers, irrespective of whether the breach is deliberate or unintentional. Therefore, app developers and healthcare professionals ought to leave no exceptions on excellence with data security and privacy.

Encryption safeguards data through algorithms and codes, only decipherable with an encryption key. A secure mHealth app ought to provide encryption key access to only patients and their healthcare professionals/providers.

Some of the sensitive data a healthcare provider should encrypt include but are not limited to communications and channels, emails, server files, and databases. On the other hand, the following patient data, including more, are as crucial to encrypt: medical histories, personal data inclusive of contacts and social security numbers, and insurance details.

Consider SQLCipher, among other database encryptions, with HTTPS and SSL pinning for information transfer and thus protection from MITM attacks.

3. How to make an app secure via user authentication

Another way to protect patient and professional healthcare data is through user authentication. How does it work?

As it suggests, user authentication is a system helpful in confirming that only the right person (the device’s owner) accesses the app and data.

Attackers can be deceitful in their attempts to gain unauthorized access; technological advancements have taken the risks a notch higher. User authentication relieves some of the risks in several ways. Among them, is a device’s user interface.

When a patient installs a mobile health app, it can gather the user’s health-related information from their smartphones (before processing then reporting).

However, the convenience of such intelligence ends in the case that a patient’s phone is borrowed or stolen. The app may never tell who’s using it and if the phone’s owner is indeed its everyday user. Besides storing an unintended person’s data, the app could also share protected health information with the unauthorized person(s)—a breach of security and privacy.

User authentication is the way to go for a patient’s PHI, or otherwise, protected health information, when using mHealth apps. Consider Multi-Factor Authentication, otherwise known as MFA, for data protection and thus prevention of unauthorized use.

MFA requires separate confirmations that the mobile app user is indeed the registered patient and thus authorized owner of the data—it permits entry only after authentication. Besides password encryption, MFA also offers voice identification, fingerprint, retinal/facial recognition, and a one-time password, among other verifications.

Mobile health apps have different functionalities and usability among healthcare providers; find out what works best.

4. Conduct comprehensive healthcare app testing

Vulnerabilities can exist in many points of a mobile app healthcare system. Remember that the worst threats are evolving faster than time. It is important to check and test your app thoroughly to enhance its security.

Some systems have underlying vulnerabilities that professionals can easily bypass. The results can be damaging; attackers take advantage of such changes to sneak their way into the systems and breach patient and healthcare data, exposing the involved parties to great risks.

A mobile health app’s operating system is an important place to test vulnerabilities. End-user behaviour can also prove risky, including application flaws and service vulnerabilities.

Mobile app developers ought to ensure that no unintended data falls into the wrong hands—including other apps and unauthenticated access by an attacker using a registered patient’s device. The cruciality of authentication and authorization cannot be overlooked—the consequences can be disastrous.

Additionally, unauthorized persons can access sensitive patient data, if the mHealth app hasn’t established secure data storage.

It can be a result of insecure encoding or insecure file permissions in an app’s data storage. Insecure storage of an app’s authentication information, including cookies, could expose users to attacks. Nevertheless, insecure encryption algorithms may not offer sufficient protection to some sensitive data.

Consider Nessus for a server’s vulnerability test, among other tools; the NIST vulnerability checklist database and standards could also be handy with web frameworks and server configurations.

5. Protect a medical app from penetration

In every way possible, keep attackers away and protect the mHealth app’s integrity, and thus, every patient’s data; this will require zero penetration by all unauthorized persons.

Among the attackers to watch out for are hackers. With unauthorized access to a mobile health app, they could misuse sensitive patient data, often holding them at high ransoms. Social engineers use deceptive means to sneak their ways to acquire a user’s login credentials, thus gaining unauthorized access.

Man in the Middle (MITM) attackers are third-party eavesdroppers. As the name suggests, they could intercept the exchange of data and information between medical health applications and sensitive databases.

Some of the ways to secure the mHealth app and protect it from penetration include using strong passwords and incorporating user authentication.

Also, app developers ought to reject or avoid the use of plain text passwords as they expose users to vulnerabilities. Unlimited password lengths and varieties up the level of their security and in case a user forgets their password, a reset system would be more secure over a retrieval system.

Login forms are often exposed to MITM attacks. Rather than loading and posting forms over HTTPS, consider HTTPS everywhere.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, mHealth apps offer convenience that medical professionals and patients appreciate. Data privacy and security prove essential in keeping the healthcare provider-patient relationship for the delivery of the best services and the free, safe communication of essential health information. Consider the above steps to build a secure mobile health application.