Electronic health records (EHR) systems are revolutionizing the collection and standardization of patient medical information. Never before has it been so easy for healthcare practitioners to have patient information so readily available, allowing for more efficient and accurate care.
Unfortunately, what many organizations today don’t realize is, just because their EHR system is compliant with HIPAA security standards, their entity as a whole may not be fully compliant.
Every healthcare organization under HIPAA is responsible for the protection of patient data, regardless of whether they use a vendor to process or store their patient records. If your EHR vendor claims you don’t have to worry about HIPAA compliance, don’t believe them – it’s just not true.
Privacy and security are much more than simply having a HIPAA compliant EHR. It is truly frightening when I hear a healthcare company, or even worse, an EHR vendor, claim their EHR system covers all of a healthcare company’s HIPAA requirements. Even for cloud-based EHR systems, this simply is not the case.
Maintaining a secure EHR system
The newly revised HIPAA Security Rule requires providers to assess the security of their databases, applications, and systems that contain patient data against a list of 75 specific security controls. These controls include specific safeguards to be in place for the purpose of protecting PHI.
In our ever-changing digital environment, it’s critical that healthcare organizations regularly assess their security programs as a whole to ensure they have the policies, procedures, and security measures in place to better protect patient information and avoid costly regulatory enforcements.
Unfortunately, addressing risks to electronic patient data is not always a top priority.
We need to get the message out that HIPAA compliance (and the protection of patient data) cannot be relegated to simply checking a box (i.e., my EHR system is compliant, therefore, my practice is compliant, too). HIPAA compliance must, instead, be addressed across an organization wherever patient data is present.
Understand current security measures
The ongoing responsibility of managing patient data throughout an organization requires an organized, well-thought-out approach to risk management. No matter how small or long established, it’s critical for healthcare entities to understand what they are doing to protect patient data, what they are not doing, and what they should be doing in the future.
While some EHR systems and their related equipment have security features built into or provided as part of a service, they are not always configured or enabled properly. In addition, medical equipment is often web-enabled (can connect remotely to send information to a server), but that equipment may not be checked for proper security.
As the guardian of patient health information, it is up to each healthcare organization to learn and understand the basic features of their IT assets and medical devices, what security mechanisms are in place, and how to use them.
There are a number of actions an entity can take to make sure that their EHR systems and IT assets are secure. Such measures leverage an integrated use of data loss prevention tools, intrusion prevention, anti-malware, file integrity monitoring, robust identity management and authentication programs, role-based access and data security solutions.
The road to HIPAA compliance
Creating adequate safeguards does not happen overnight. While it may seem overwhelming and time-consuming at first (due to HIPAA’s complex nature), the biggest obstacle to overcome is actually getting the entire process started.
Begin by carving out a regular, weekly routine – perhaps starting at 30 minutes per week when your staff members who are responsible for HIPAA compliance can meet to discuss the privacy and security of patient data.
Here are some specific actions your entity should take when working to protect patient information:
- Have a designated HIPAA-assigned compliance officer or team member. Clearly and specifically lay out the roles of everyone in your organization involved with HIPAA compliance responsibilities.
- Ensure that access to ePHI is restricted based on an individual’s job roles and/or responsibilities.
- Conduct an annual HIPAA security risk analysis (specifically required under HIPAA rules.) This can involve regularly engaging with a trusted provider that can remotely monitor and maintain your network and devices to ensure ongoing security.
- Mitigate and address any risks identified during your HIPAA risk analysis including deficient security, administrative and physical controls, access to environments where ePHI is stored, and a disaster recovery plan.
- Make sure your policies and procedures match up to the requirements of HIPAA.
- Require user authentication, such as passwords or PIN numbers that limit access to patient information to authorized-only individuals.
- Encrypt patient information using a key known or made available only to authorized individuals.
- Incorporate audit trails, which record who accessed your information, what changes were made, and when they were made, providing an additional layer of security.
- Implement workstation security, which ensures the computer terminals that access individual health records cannot be used by unauthorized persons.
Privacy and security concerns are key when it comes to HIPAA, but it’s also important to ensure your enterprise as a whole is protected. With 75 different requirements that fall under the HIPAA Security Rule umbrella, it’s critical to ensure all systems where ePHI resides are protected. Otherwise, organizations are placing themselves and their patients at serious risk.