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How to Protect Data in Healthcare

Protecting Data in Healthcare
Chris Adams
Chris Adams
December 5, 2022

Data protection should be a central tenet of business operations in many fields, but it is essential in the healthcare industry. Healthcare data breaches have become increasingly more common over the years. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has made it extremely clear that healthcare organizations are responsible for protecting electronic health records. HIPAA fines can total up to $1.5 million per year for violations of data security practices, and the Final Omnibus Rule lays that responsibility squarely on your shoulders.

If regulatory fines weren't substantial enough, imagine the reputational damage that comes with the failure to protect patient data and the release of personal health information to cybercriminals. Add to that the civil liability and the sky-high judgments that could result from any potential lawsuits, and you truly begin to see the seriousness of the landscape when we're speaking of cyber security in healthcare organizations. Now that it's relatively clear why data protection is essential, we'll provide you with a handful of valuable tips on how to protect data in healthcare in the most effective manner.

Encrypt Your Data

Encrypt Data

If you aren't encrypting your sensitive data, mainly your patients' PHI, you are skipping the first step. Before implementing further risk management or cyber security tips, we highly recommend encrypting all stored and transmitted data. HIPAA's Security Rule specifically requires the encryption of personal health information and regulates the encryption and decryption of that data. Similarly, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) also sets technical safeguard standards for healthcare data, including encryption.

Making your data unreadable to all but the intended recipient of any transmission and authorized users of your systems and applications helps protect those files should they end up lost or stolen. Human error happens, and something like a misspelled email address could result in a hefty fine for violating HIPAA standards if the information is readily accessible.

Train Your Personnel

Your second priority is training all employees on general data protection and cyber security standards and specific training for the individual threats they may be exposed to. Studies have estimated that nearly 40% of personnel need more data protection knowledge or cybersecurity expertise. Therefore, you must keep your staff up to speed to safeguard your patients' data.

Most important among these training topics should be recognizing phishing and other social engineering-type scams and basic cyber hygiene practices. Social engineering scams coerce or trick an employee into taking action to allow cyber attackers access to protected data or systems. No amount of cyber security tools will prevent an employee from willingly allowing an attacker access, so they need to be trained to detect those scams rapidly. Basic cyber hygiene training should include training on creating strong passwords, recognizing suspicious emails and attachments, and not clicking on unknown links or attachments. These training sessions should be a part of your employees' continuing education requirements.

Access Control

When thinking of how to protect data in healthcare spaces, access control is one of the most effective ways. These security measures are two primary categories: physical access control and data accessibility.

Physical Security Measures

Any location where PHI is accessed, processed, or stored must be protected by physical security measures. These are typically the easiest to quantify and think of. Things like security guards, camera systems, keycard access, biometric security controls, and other methods of physically securing locations and files are sufficient.

Access to Data and Applications

Strong Password

User authentication is the name of the game when you are talking about securing access to electronic health records and devices. Each team member should have unique login credentials, these credentials should require strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, and their access to data and systems should be limited to only what is immediately necessary to complete their assigned job function.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to have role-based user accounts. This streamlines the onboarding process for your IT personnel by defining set permissions for roles or groups of assigned employees based on their job duties. Registration doesn't need prescription writing, practitioners don't need billing information, and billing staff needs access to health insurance and payment information. Limiting access through defined roles decreases the amount of possible data loss should a user account be compromised. At the same time, your IT staff should have alerts set should a user account suddenly gain permissions or even administrator status.

Log Files

This area can be a significant challenge for smaller entities, but securing medical records is no less critical. Aside from being outright required by HIPAA for seven years, keeping records of event logs, access logs, and other records for all files, servers, desktops, and devices is a good practice, to begin with. This allows breach tracing to be much more efficient and can help to determine what data may have been compromised quickly. With complete logs, the extent of the breach could be known, which could lead to patients needing to be notified that their PHI was compromised. That can result in more significant losses on their part and greater liability for damages on your behalf, which make understanding how to protect data in healthcare essential.

Device Management

Multiple devices with the same account

From mobile devices to connected medical devices, the number of internet-connected items involved in healthcare only continues to increase. Even pacemakers are vulnerable to cybercriminals. Each one of those devices is a potential access point. Your organization must set strict mobile device management policies and enforce them rigorously.

Mobile device management software can also act as a force multiplier for your IT staff. The ability to monitor each device remotely, use enhanced and included cybersecurity tools, and remotely wipe lost or stolen devices can significantly reduce your risk exposure. You must regularly check for updates and ensure that they are promptly installed on all of your devices.

Hold Your Third Parties Accountable

HIPAA makes no excuses for breaches that occur as a result of a third-party vendor or supplier. It is your responsibility as the entity bound by HIPAA to verify that your third parties are following the same strict data protection guidelines for electronic health records that you are required to. Whether your vendor handles cloud storage for your patients' PHI data or provides clinical software that you use to assist your treatment staff, you must conduct continuous monitoring to verify that these third parties are running their business in compliance with all required regulatory standards.

While it may seem too much to keep track of, these tips on how to protect data in healthcare will set you on the path to success, but you don't have to face this threat alone. At Venture Lynk Risk Management, our team of information and cyber security experts offers a whole host of vendor risk assessment and management services that can ease the burden on your personnel. We are experienced in handling the nuanced details facing the healthcare industry and many other highly regulated and high-risk fields. Contact us today to see what services we can provide to address your enterprise's specific challenges.