Best Practices to Protect Your Patients’ Health Data

managed IT service provider

managed IT service providerWhile most organizations worry about data protection, it is especially important in the healthcare industry. Many medical organizations hold an abundance of sensitive information that can make them a target for cybercrime for several reasons:

  • They often collect sensitive information, such as personal contact information for the patient and their close contacts.
  • They often collect financial information, such as account and card numbers.
  • The information is crucial. Without access to patient databases, a clinical facility can become crippled in its ability to deliver lifesaving interventions and treatments.
  • Clinical facilities frequently have a fragile digital infrastructure with a variety of specialized devices connected to the network. Each of these devices may have vulnerabilities that could be exploited at any time.
  • There may be an abundance of legacy infrastructure. Unfortunately, this outdated equipment introduces risk.

And since many medical facilities are under-financed, the number of vulnerabilities at any given facility can be staggering. While not all vulnerabilities or risks can be mitigated through actions and best practices, some can. And following best practices is vital in protecting patient health data.

Personal and private health information (PHI) is legally protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Healthcare facilities can face steep penalties, fines, or legal claims if they fail to protect patient data. Yet despite this risk, there is still more than one data breach per day that involves 500 or more patient records in the healthcare industry. For this reason, many facilities implement technologies and processes that work to keep patient data secure.

Best practices for keeping patient medical and personal information secure include:

1. Conducting a HIPAA audit and becoming HIPAA compliant.

HIPAA fines and violations pose a tremendous risk to healthcare facilities. A single breach that involves multiple patient records can quickly result in millions of dollars in legal losses and penalties. HIPAA focuses on two aspects of healthcare data protection.

  • The Privacy Rule: This rule focuses on protecting patient’s private health information, including insurance details, medical records, medications, diagnoses, and other details. In order to safeguard this data, organizations limit what information can be used and disclosed to third parties without first seeking the patient’s consent.
  • The Security Rule: This aspect of HIPAA requires secure procedures when creating, using, receiving, or storing protected health information. HIPAA details can provide additional guidelines on the technical requirements for HIPAA compliance.

The bottom line is that adhering to HIPAA can go a long way toward keeping your patients’ protected health information safe. Going through your organization’s platforms, systems, hardware, and software with an eye toward HIPAA compliance can help you identify and address deficiencies before a breach occurs.

2. Implement encryption.

Encryption is one of the most powerful tools any organization has to combat cybercrime. An analysis of clinical data breaches often shows how easy it can be for cybercriminals to obtain protected data. And in many of these instances, it could be prevented by encryption. When the data is encrypted, you can prevent those with criminal intent from accessing and using the data.

And while lots of healthcare facilities take precautions to encrypt data that is being transmitted, many fail to encrypt data that is simply being stored. But this encryption is crucial because even if a hacker gains access to your network, they would be unable to view the data, effectively rendering it worthless.

3. Back up Your Data Regularly.

Healthcare facilities are especially susceptible to ransomware attacks. In this type of attack, malware is used to encrypt patient files, preventing clinicians from accessing these files (which also prevents them from delivering treatment). Then a ransom is demanded from the healthcare facility. Unless the organization pays the ransom, they will remain unable to access patient data. Consider the following statistics concerning ransomware in healthcare.

  • 92 major ransomware attacks in 2020 impacted more than 600 separate clinical facilities.
  • Ransom demands ranged from $300,000 to $1.14 million.
  • The average cost of downtime for these facilities was $8,662 per minute.
  • The total cost of known ransomware attacks in 2020 in the United States is at least $20.8 billion (which is more than double the cost in 2019).

An organization can mitigate this risk by maintaining data redundancy by backing up files frequently. If an attack occurs, the clinical facility can access the backed-up data, meaning the cybercriminal has lost any leverage they might have had. And if the data is properly encrypted, they cannot access the information for other criminal purposes, such as identity theft. These two strategies combined (redundancy and encryption) can provide a robust framework for keeping patient data safe and secure.

4. Focus on training.

The majority (53%) of healthcare data breaches originate from inside healthcare organizations. These types of breaches include theft by employees and negligent use of patient data and records. While some of these breaches are intentional, many are not.

Periodic HIPAA compliance training is required for healthcare professionals. But for many organizations, this consists of annual training. A lot of facilities would benefit from additional training sessions or refreshers. These classes reinforce the most crucial concepts for HIPAA compliance, such as the information protected, why it is protected, and strategies to keep the data safe.

This type of training can also focus on safeguards that the organization has implemented to keep patient data safe. Examples include:

  • Preventing the use of personal devices to access the network and patient information.
  • Spotting security threats or red flags that may be a sign of an attack.
  • Securing all endpoints with a time-out feature that prevents unauthorized access to devices.
  • Proper authentication of users that access the system. Many healthcare facilities use biometric data and two-factor authentication to safeguard systems and data.
  • Changing passwords frequently and selecting strong passwords.

These small changes to how clinicians work can make a tremendous impact on keeping patient data secure. Regular training can help healthcare employees understand the importance of their actions.

While these best practices are a great first step in protecting patient data, many facilities would benefit from an individualized risk assessment that identifies vulnerabilities and prioritizes the needs of the organization. To learn more about keeping medical data secure, contact Sagacent Technologies today, one of San Jose’s most trusted managed IT service provider.