As the healthcare industry implements a growing number of digital practices, keeping tabs on security and data privacy is more important than ever. Hospital systems, private practices, and medical specialists collect and store a significant amount of private and confidential health data. As a result, everyday patients are also more at risk for data breaches and cybercrime.
In the past year alone, international news outlets have reported a 94% increase in the number of ransomware attacks on hospital systems. Clearly, threat actors are out to gain access to health-related data, and protecting it from theft is an enormous responsibility.
If you work in the healthcare industry, you might be wondering precisely what steps you can take to keep protected health information (PHI) safe. Let’s walk through a few practical steps that you can implement to improve data privacy, build credibility, and increase patient trust.
What is PHI?
PHI stands for “Protected Health Information,” and it includes data that falls under protection by HIPAA regulations. According to the HIPAA Journal, a basic definition of PHI is as follows:
“PHI is considered to be any identifiable health information that is used, maintained, stored, or transmitted by a HIPAA-covered entity – a healthcare provider, health plan or health insurer, or a healthcare clearinghouse – or a business associate of a HIPAA-covered entity, in relation to the provision of healthcare or payment for healthcare services.”
Even though many patients don’t think about PHI in such specific terms, submitting private health information requires a certain level of trust in the healthcare provider. Patients are owed a matching level of security and protection, particularly when sharing sensitive and identifiable health information that could put them at risk in other ways.
>> Read: How to Collect Data the Secure, Compliant Way—The Ultimate Guide <<
What are the risks associated with PHI?
In most settings, there are some underlying (and obvious) risks associated with sharing personally identifiable information. In the healthcare setting in particular, this is even more prevalent, since the same data is often related to treatment, medications, and care plans.
Healthcare providers and larger systems must understand the risks associated with keeping, managing, and protecting PHI. This process must include having an awareness of the following unforeseen risks.
- Expensive and costly data breaches – When data is lost or threatened, the results can be particularly pricey. In 2020, the average cost of a data breach for any organization was around $7.13 million, and that trend continues to increase. Healthcare systems may be faced with steep penalties and litigations for data malpractice.
- HIPAA violations – Healthcare organizations are also unique in that there are very specific, lawful ways to handle patient data, per HIPAA regulations. Failure to comply with these policies (whether intentionally or accidentally) can result in steep fines, legal action, or government intervention.
- Employee compliance – Unfortunately, some of the greatest threats to patient data are in the form of employee or internal negligence. Without proper onboarding and security training, healthcare organizations run the risk of losing or compromising data based on actions inadvertently made by members of their own teams.
Best practices and tips for guarding PHI
It’s clear that there are very strong reasons and motivations for protecting personal patient data. But if you’re a largely dispersed healthcare organization, taking the right steps all at once can feel daunting.
This is where having a practical and proven data collection strategy comes into play. Although leveraging a data collection platform like FormAssembly is the best option for safeguarding health-related data, there are certain actions you can take to maximize patient privacy.
Tip 1: Know your devices and access points
Because we exist in an Internet-of-Things (IoT) world, more mobile devices and physical objects are connected to the internet than in years past. Although this can sometimes be helpful in a fast-paced healthcare environment (where staff members move locations frequently), it’s easier to let data security slip through the cracks.
Carefully monitor, evaluate, and regulate which mobile devices or items can connect to your data systems. Taking this extra step can reduce the chance that healthcare data falls into the wrong hands as a direct result of unsecured devices.
When you bring new technology on-site, make sure that you put it to the test. Rigorously test any wireless or remote capabilities, and verify that each device has security protocols (like encryption) in place. This is especially true if you are providing the device to a patient for data submission during intake.
Tip 2: Educate and train staff members
Because the risk of internal data mistakes is so high, it’s critical that leaders and administrators regularly onboard, educate, and train all staff members. Cybersecurity training shouldn’t just be reserved for desk workers, either. Any team member that interacts with patient data should have the knowledge and training needed to perform their job securely.
Remind all employees about their responsibilities when it comes to patient data. Although most practitioners have a general and guiding knowledge of HIPAA rules, it’s important to reiterate these for life in the digital age.
How could a simple and honest mistake lead to major repercussions for thousands of patients? Encourage all team members to carefully consider the scenarios in which they could unknowingly put patient data at risk.
Tip 3: Oversee network traffic
Network filters are useful for managing and reducing the amount of traffic that your users give to risky websites. Some websites may serve as gateways for improper internet usage or malicious file downloads. The goal should be to reduce these interactions whenever possible.
Internet or network filters are especially helpful if you open your wireless network to patients, visitors, or outside personnel (in other words, any member of the public). While it’s often easier to regulate the digital traffic of your own employees, available public guest networks should be secure and well-monitored.
Tip 4: Encrypt all patient data
Encryption is the process of reframing or coding data so that it is more difficult to access, interpret, or steal. Encryption most often happens in one of two ways—in transit and at rest.
Encryption in transit takes place as the data is being sent from one location to another, which is often when it’s most vulnerable to outside threats. On the other hand, encryption at rest is the process of securing data while it’s being held in storage (or any time that it’s not actively in use). Both aspects play an important role in holistic PHI protection.
Healthcare systems can opt to use data platforms that perform encryption capabilities naturally, or they can manually and separately perform encryption at key intervals. To successfully encrypt PHI, organizations must first determine:
- Which types of data require protection
- When to encrypt that data (in transit or at rest)
- Key players or software required for performing the encryption
- How to regularly evaluate encryption results and procedures
Tip 5: Create data backup plans
As part of your overall data strategy, remember to assess your plans regularly and evaluate risks as needed. Cybersecurity conditions and threats are constantly evolving, which means that your team must be proactive and responsive.
What would you do if faced with a sudden outage, natural disaster, or threat of total data loss? Create comprehensive plans for backing up your patient data now, so that it’s less at risk when unexpected events take place.
A key best practice to follow is to have data backups performed to offsite locations at regular and predictable intervals. Taking this step can reduce the immediate risks associated with losing your on-site patient data.
Protect your data with FormAssembly
Healthcare systems and medical providers have dealt with significant challenges and shifting priorities both during and after the pandemic.
The additional stress of securing PHI can be yet another weighty responsibility to tackle, but FormAssembly makes it easy to proactively secure your patient and healthcare data.
With resources like our HIPAA Compliance Checklist, you can ensure that your organization’s modern data policies are up to date and efficient against cyber threats.