Breach report shows modest improvements

Fewer patients affected, but 'ongoing process of vigilance' needed

A new report suggests some improvement with regard to healthcare data breaches in 2012, compared with previous years. Still, the study shows there's much work to be done.

The report, conducted by IT security assessment provider Redspin, examines some 538 incidents affecting more than 21.4 million individuals since the interim breach notification rule under the HITECH Act went into effect in August 2009.
 
Although findings show a massive 77 percent decline in the number of patient records compromised in breaches, that's accompanied by a 21.5 percent increase in the number of large data breaches. According to the report, more than 2.4 million patients were impacted by some 146 breaches investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012. That's no small number. 
 
"While the breach data shows improvement year-over-year, we caution against complacency," said Daniel W. Berger, president and CEO of Redspin, in a statement. "Clearly the increase in the number of health providers who conducted HIPAA Security Risk Assessments in 2012 had a positive impact. But continuous and durable security requires continuing investment and effort – it is an ongoing process of vigilance."
 
[See also: HHS makes 'sweeping' changes to HIPAA.]
 
Findings also suggest that the majority of breaches (57 percent) involve business associates. Moreover, report officials say these business associates have impacted more than five times the number of patients than covered entities have in regards to data breaches.

"The recently-published HIPAA Omnibus Rule now requires business associates to comply with HIPAA privacy and security regulations directly and extends civil liability to BAs for PHI breach," said Berger. "This is a major regulatory change. But health providers should not just assume all BAs will comply – they need to be proactive, working closely with their business partners to build a secure 'chain of PHI custody.'"

 
Additionally, according to the report, the lack of encryption on laptops and other portable electronic devices is the cause of more than one-third of PHI breaches (38 percent). 
 
[See also: Stanford reports fourth HIPAA breach.]
 
Lastly, Redspin officials warn that personal health records are high-value targets for cybercriminals, as they can be exploited for identity theft, insurance fraud and falsified prescriptions. Although there has been a relatively low incident rate of hacking among all PHI breaches to date, Berger says last year's attack on the Utah Department of Health – where some 780,000 Medicaid and Children's Health Plan records were targeted – "may be the canary in the coal mine."