The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was introduced in 1996 and sets the security standards for all healthcare providers. The Act also influences technology in the healthcare setting. The HIPAA regulations are in place to protect sensitive health information regarding patients; with all healthcare organizations required to satisfy certain set security standards for patients’ health information that is stored or transmitted electronically. However, complying with the HIPAA regulations is not easy due to the ever-changing threat landscape, particularly in relation to digitally stored information. It is for this reason that most health providers find it difficult to keep up with the demands of their jobs while at the same time keeping an eye on the ever-evolving regulations.
HIPAA compliance remains a challenge for many reasons. Fortunately, a HIPAA Compliant Medical Transcription Service and a strong program for training related to compliance, including on social media, can make compliance easier.
Social media offers a unique set of opportunities for healthcare organizations to connect with the world around them. With the right approach, it is possible to form a closer relationship with those that matter most to an organization, creating a sense of closeness and accountability that strengthens bonds and builds a stronger foundation for everyone involved. However, organizations that must comply with HIPAA standards must exercise a certain amount of caution when it comes to posting online, particularly among employees. Healthcare organizations are seeing an increasing number of HIPAA violations in the form of social media posts.
Employees are not necessarily trained concerning HIPAA compliance as it relates to posting online, leaving the door open for mistakes that can have significant consequences. Employees that share patient information on social media or medical blogs can commit the same kind of violation that occurs due to such activity in person, something that employees may not understand. If employees share patient information by posting online in certain instances, it can and will lead to HIPAA violations. While they may know that they should not be “gossiping” about patients in the workplace or even outside of the workplace, the impersonal nature of online posting may lower the guard of employees and thus lead to violations that can harm your organization.
Employees need to be trained—as part of an overall compliance program—to understand that sharing certain patient information, including photos without written permission can lead to serious consequences. They do not even have to share the information on purpose. Just having an image of the information in another photo, like a picture with a co-worker, can trigger the same kind of response from regulators as a purposeful action. For your organization to be fully compliant you must include training for employees about the posting of patient information online.
Below are actions that you can take to dramatically enhance the security posture of your organization.
- Pay attention to mobile devices
In the healthcare environment, there has been an increased adoption of ‘bring-your-own-device to work’ culture. This new trend introduces new security risks because the healthcare providers can carry around the devices from one location to the other. It increases the chances of theft, loss, or unauthorized access to the healthcare information stored on these devices. In addition to the risk posed by these portable devices, the healthcare providers have become widely familiar with text messaging, emailing, and many social media applications. The heavy usage and reliance on these platforms could lead to many practitioners sharing private health information over them especially if they do not know any better.
To mitigate these risks, the organization has to ensure that all their staff are educated and trained–especially within your EHR. The organization should also take action to secure all devices using strong passwords as well as multi-factor authentication. They should also encourage and ensure that sensitive health information regarding patients is shared via pre-approved HIPAA-secure applications.
- Develop a culture of security within the organization
Developing a culture of security throughout the organization can significantly reduce the chances of staff error. The culture starts with regular staff training combined with knowledge equipping sessions. With the information acquired during training, the staff become more aware of the risks associated with healthcare information mismanagement. Improving your security can start small by simply encouraging the staff to use stronger passwords and frequently update them. Before commencing their duties, employees should sign a declaration indicating that they understood the security policies, as well as their responsibilities and the penalties associated with non-compliance. By doing so, the staff will be more keen and avoid any human errors.
The employees should also be encouraged to perform self-audits. By doing so, they will identify gaps in their security protocols and they can come up with the proper responses to such threats in the future. Taking comprehensive self-audits is a proactive way of dealing with future threats.
- Avoiding compliance fatigue
Complex compliance mandated by the law can quickly lead to compliance fatigue. This is because under the HIPAA regulations, the healthcare organization not only has to comply with the regulations, but also their business associates and other vendors. When it comes to outside vendors, the organization is required to send questionnaires back and forth as part of risk management. On top of the questionnaires, they also have to facilitate third-party audits and reviews, which can easily lead to compliance fatigue.
To avoid compliance fatigue, the organization can ensure that they only hire certified third-party vendors. Certified vendors are those who have met a certain set of requirements, meaning that the organization does not have to shadow every move made by the vendors because they have more confidence in them.
- Keep an eye on other businesses you work with
It is common practice for medical practices to collaborate with a number of third-party vendors as well as other businesses for various reasons. Depending on the data you share with these businesses, you want to make sure that they adhere to the rigorous cyber security standards. If they do not adhere to these standards, they can compromise your patients’ private information hence undermining your HIPAA compliance. This can be a big weak point in your HIPAA compliance efforts. It is therefore crucial that you coordinate your compliance with the third party vendors, and make sure that they are aware of the HIPAA regulations and they are in a position to handle them.
The organization should only entrust protected health information (PHI) to vendors who not only demonstrate their willingness, but also their ability to apply the appropriate safeguards. To evaluate the vendor’s willingness to comply with your expectations, you can use a security questionnaire. There are a number of factors that should be considered when selecting a vendor including the level of access to PHI, duration of contract and performance specifications.
- Take advantage of technological developments
Technology is always changing and this offers both a challenge and an opportunity for easier compliance. On one hand, the organization needs to continually devote their resources to regularly update their IT set-up and also fight new threats. On the other hand, the new technology offers cost effective and reliable improvements in cyber security; making it easier for the organization to safely store and transmit patient data. Here are some of the technological advancements that you can take advantage of;
- Secure texting – secure texting offers physicians a platform to transmit encrypted patient information. This way, they take advantage of the convenience and speed of text messaging without exposing patient’s information to hackers. It is an application that can be downloaded on a desktop computer, mobile device, or smartphone and it only connects users who have authorized access to the system.
- Cloud encryption – encryption offers a higher level of protection for sensitive data stored in the cloud. The data is encrypted using special algorithm before it is placed in the cloud. In case of hacking, the data will not appear in an understandable format.
- Intrusion detection software – just as the name suggests, an intrusion detection software or IDS is an application which is either a device or a software that can be used to monitor a system or a network for suspicious activity or violations of policy regulations.
- Educate patients on protecting the security of their own private health information
Of late, emphasis has been placed on calling on consumers to take control over their own data rather than relying on their healthcare providers to safeguard it. Your security is only as strong as your weakest link and unfortunately, the consumer is the weakest link in your chain. As a healthcare provider, you should invest in educating your health care consumers about cyber security as it will pay off in the end. You can simply start by informing your patients the impact that compliance issues have on their care by initiating compliance issues discussions and offering resources for more information on the same.
Healthcare practices, whether small or middle sized, are facing the same uphill struggle when it comes to compliance with the HIPAA regulations. Unfortunately, the struggle with healthcare data security will continue for years to come. However, by staying educated, working together, and investing in the right tools, organizations have a better chance of always being HIPAA compliant. Every institution should have a formal and updated information security management program that is in place to ensure all their assets including information are secure.