5 Ways to Make Sure Your Data is HIPAA Compliant
If your organization is in the healthcare industry or captures sensitive health information, you’re familiar with data privacy and security challenges. Maintaining compliance with ever-evolving laws and regulations such as HIPAA can be a challenge, but it is necessary when dealing with protected health information. A clear understanding of HIPAA requirements helps protect your organization and the welfare of individuals.
Yet, HIPAA rules and regulations can be difficult to interpret correctly. And a violation can result in serious fines, reputation loss, and risk for patients. Especially amidst growing security threats, digital transformation, and integration of third-party software. So, how do you make sure the sensitive data you collect remains HIPAA compliant?
In this post, we’ll cover the basics of HIPAA requirements and what steps your organization can take to remain compliant by maximizing data security and privacy.
The basics of HIPAA rules and regulations
Healthcare data is one of the most valuable types of personal information—often considered more valuable than even credit card data. First introduced in 1996, HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a federal law that provides rules about the privacy and security of protected health information (PHI).
This act includes the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which sets the standard for how health information can be used and disclosed as well as an individual’s rights to control. The act also includes the HIPAA Security Rule, which applies specifically to securing and protecting electronic health information.
The types of data protected under HIPAA include:
- Patient names and birthdays
- Contact information
- Unique identification numbers (Social Security, health insurance, biometric)
- Photographs and digital images
- Dates pertaining to treatment or medical care
HIPAA requirements must be followed by all covered entities (healthcare providers, health insurances, and clearinghouses) and business associates involved in data collection and management of PHI. These organizations must also only use software and tools that maintain HIPAA compliance. In short, all organizations involved with PHI must follow strict rules for how to store and exchange medical data as well as protect it against unauthorized access.
The risk of HIPAA noncompliance
With the recent increase in data breaches, it’s more important than ever for organizations to focus on keeping medical data secure and private. This can seem intimidating, but it’s essential to secure sensitive data and train staff properly to minimize or eliminate HIPAA violations. These are the most common violations to avoid:
- Mishandling paper or digital records
- Leaving computers unlocked
- Having weak passwords or none at all
- Using insecure and non-compliant software
- Not obtaining the proper authorization
- Releasing the wrong patient’s information
- Not properly disposing or purging PHI
Five ways to make sure data is HIPAA compliant
It’s critical that organizations take responsibility for protecting sensitive health information. Even more important than preventing fines, HIPAA compliance ensures the welfare of individuals who have entrusted private information to you. Here are the five main ways your organization can make sure health data is HIPAA compliant.
1. Restrict who has authorized access
One of the main goals of HIPAA is to prevent individuals or organizations from misusing PHI. When handling sensitive data, be sure to follow the “minimum necessary” standard. This means an individual should only be allowed to see the data needed to complete their specific tasks. Access controls on different levels of patient information can help minimize accidental or intentional misuse of sensitive data.
Take these steps to follow the “minimum necessary” standard:
- Clearly document what information is contained in systems with ePHI and PHI.
- Limit access to PHI with permissions based on an employee’s role and responsibilities.
- Train employees on what data they are authorized and not authorized to access.
- Create a policy and process for violations of the “minimum necessary” standard.
- Conduct routine audits to make sure employees have the correct level of access.
2. Strengthen cybersecurity protocols
Being security-conscious is one of the best ways your organization can stay HIPAA compliant. While HIPAA compliance does not automatically mean data security, you must prioritize both to minimize violations and threats. A good way to safeguard your organization and sensitive information is by implementing or strengthening cybersecurity policies.
Cybersecurity policies like these provide a standard for how your employees should handle medical data:
- Using strong passwords and changing them routinely
- Secure login with two-factor authentication
- Using only secure networks, devices, and software
- Staying alert to phishing and reporting attacks
- Only accessing data if authorized to do so
Your organization’s cybersecurity or IT team should also conduct routine risk assessments, data audits, and vulnerability scans. These tests ensure the normal functioning of hardware and systems while making sure vulnerabilities are spotted and resolved quickly.
3. Establish an employee training program
Without proper knowledge of HIPAA requirements, healthcare employees become the biggest risk for data breaches. In fact, healthcare employees account for 39% of all medical data breaches. While these breaches may not be malicious, they still result in serious consequences for organizations and the patients involved.
Many organizations provide free HIPAA training courses for healthcare professionals. Routinely offering this education at your organization can help reduce the risk of a data breach. It also ensures that your entire organization remains up-to-date on HIPAA changes. Comprehensive HIPAA training should include:
- The importance of keeping PHI protected
- What is covered under HIPAA requirements
- How HIPAA protects PHI
- Best practices for staying HIPAA compliant
- Common cyberattacks to watch for
4. Develop a process for handling data breaches
No organization is completely safe from a cyberattack or data breach. It’s critical that your organization is prepared for an event and has a protocol established for handling breaches. While a data breach is dangerous, taking proactive steps to report the incident is part of remaining HIPAA compliant. Be sure employees are aware of the protocols and processes before a data breach occurs.
HIPAA requirements also provide rules for notifying individuals affected by a data breach. This HIPAA Breach Notification Rule outlines the steps your organization must take if PHI is compromised. These can include immediately notifying patients involved (or potentially involved), the Media, and the Department of Health and Human Services, all generally within 60 of the incident occurring.
5. Only integrate with HIPAA-compliant software
Organizations must also be aware of the risks associated with third-party software that has access to medical data. These digital technologies can include patient scheduling tools, EMR/EHR systems, patient engagement platforms, or data collection and web form platforms like FormAssembly. Not all software is HIPAA compliant, so it’s important that your organization audits the security and privacy standards of new software before implementing it.
Make sure the IT or cybersecurity team at your organization also creates a policy for downloading and using the software. All software should be cleared before use to avoid any data security vulnerabilities. Additionally, it is a best practice to regularly monitor and complete vulnerability scans of all third-party software to ensure it remains secure and HIPAA compliant.
Take the steps to avoid a HIPAA violation
Understanding HIPAA compliance is a challenge, but it is necessary to keep sensitive health information safe. It is the responsibility of your organization to understand the details of HIPAA compliance requirements and follow regulations. FormAssembly’s HIPAA-compliant data collection platform makes it easy for your organization to gather health information worry-free.
Using our Compliance Cloud offering, customers who need to collect and manage PHI can keep even the most sensitive data private and secure. Visit the link below to learn more about how your team can save valuable time and resources with a secure, HIPAA compliant data collection solution.