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Home Health Steps You Need to Take To Keep Medical Patient Information Secure

Steps You Need to Take To Keep Medical Patient Information Secure

In 2015, Anthem was subjected to a data breach that exposed the birth dates, medical IDs, names, and SSNs of a whopping 79 million people. As a result of this breach, the company was fined $16 million for HIPAA violations alone.

Even if the patient information stored on your servers isn’t in the tens of millions, your organization can’t afford a data breach. Not just in terms of fines — but also in terms of your professional reputation.

Between ransomware schemes, identity theft, and the fact that some medical conditions have the potential to become blackmail material, your patients are taking a risk by giving you their personal data. The last thing your organization wants is to be known as a place that’s careless with medical patient data.

What can you do to protect everyone’s information? Are there any steps you can take to ensure that your tech setup is privacy-oriented, efficient, and effective?

If you’re looking for advice on how to keep patient info safe, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to see our list of steps you can take to improve your security measures.

Laying the Foundation

Before you start recommending software, presenting solutions, and looping in middle management, your organization needs to start from the beginning. You can’t create a top-notch security plan until you know exactly what you’re up against. Here are some important steps you can take to ensure that your security planning starts off on the right foot:

1. Do an Internal Audit

Are there any common practices in your workplace that have the net effect of putting customer data at risk? Do you have multiple best-in-class software tools that are leaking data with every transaction?

These are the types of questions that your internal audit will be able to answer. As a general rule of thumb, there are two ways that you can go about this:

  • You can do your risk assessment internally
  • You can hire a reputable IT security firm to do the security assessment for you

Although there’s no doubt that your organization does its best to hire top-notch IT professionals, sometimes it can help to have an objective third party conduct your security assessment. In many cases, these firms have entire teams of specialist technicians who are intimately familiar with HIPAA regulations. This makes them capable of carrying out extensive audits that are able to focus on what matters — the security of your patient info.

But even if you decide to keep your audit in-house, there are still key problem areas to watch for:

  • Weak passwords
  • Hardware problems
  • The use of software solutions with known vulnerabilities
  • Poor data encryption practices

You won’t want to rush during this stage. The important thing is that you are able to come out of this audit with a thorough report.

2. Create a Security Plan

At this point, you’ve done an internal review of your current security practices. You know what you’re doing right — and, more importantly, you know what specific areas are in need of improvement. Here’s the part where you take the information you’ve gained from your internal risk assessment and you start putting together an action plan that will function as the North Star of your security strategy.

This major master document should include details like your software needs, a list of third-party services to consider partnering with, a cost breakdown, and any additional relevant information that has been uncovered by the risk assessment.

On a fundamental level, this step could very well take an even longer time to complete than the initial risk assessment. But if you take your time during the report-writing and planning stage, the rest of your security system upgrades will be significantly easier to implement.

3. Embed Security Into Your Processes

The struggle to keep patient info safe can sometimes be caused by your organization’s internal processes.

Do the receptionist staff have access to everyone’s healthcare information? Are employees routinely sending sensitive information over email? What security protocols do you have in place for stolen equipment?

This is another one of those processes that can be tedious to examine. But this step can help you enhance security simply because your organization will be sharing medical information on a strictly need-to-know basis. Plus, once you’ve restricted permissions and revamped your work process, spotting breaches can become a lot easier.

4. Start Setting up Your Compliance Requirements

Very few healthcare organizations are able to manage everything in-house. But when third-party providers are required, you may benefit from having a codified list of HIPAA and common sense compliance standards in order to keep patient data confidential.

Outside IT firms may need access to critical infrastructure and data. Software providers may be offering solutions. And if your organization has to work with health insurance providers, website developers, or tech specialists, one careless piece of code can bring the entire security apparatus down.

Nine times out of ten, your vendors won’t be deliberately putting you and your patients at risk. Mishaps and breaches are often the tragic end result of failing to set clear expectations. By laying out your requirements around the handling of medical patient data and general IT security, you can nip a lot of potential problems in the bud.

Implementation

Okay. At this stage, you’ve covered the basics.

You’ve done your internal audits, you’ve formulated a plan, and you’ve even come up with a list of security requirements and suggestions for making your internal protocols more security-aware. Great job!

Now we’re on to the stage where you begin making changes. In our experience, there are a few key considerations that healthcare IT departments will need to be aware of going in:

1. Get Organizational Buy-In

When your front-line staff and your managers have become accustomed to doing things a particular way, they can be resistant to making changes.

Maybe your tech-challenged workers have gotten comfortable with your current UI. Maybe your more senior members of staff have become so good with your current processes that following the rules is pretty much automatic to them.

If you’re implementing a sweeping change that could potentially affect everything from accessing patient records to document management and software vendors, you might find yourself struggling to get buy-in. That’s why it’s important to make sure that people have an answer to the question, “Why are we making all of these changes?”.

The good news is that your staff members are probably in the healthcare field in part because they want to make people’s lives better. If you can help them understand that the changes you’re making are designed to help your patients, you’ll have a much easier time getting the top-to-bottom buy-in that you need.

2. Encrypt as Much as Possible

Most people have a really good sense of how to keep data safe when it’s in storage or on the organization’s corporate servers. But how are you handling the in-transit data encryption process?

At this stage, many organizations will assume that HTTPS is sufficient for their data protection needs. And HTTPS likely will be getting the job done in many cases – until a criminal or a hacker intercepts your traffic packets. Then, all of the sudden, you’re vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks and data leakage.

In-transit data encryption doesn’t just protect the data the information inside of your traffic packets. It ensures that your medical patient information is encrypted from end to end.

For healthcare organizations that offer a number of services like health portals, healthcare apps, and easy access to insurers, end-to-end encryption could save you from appearing in the news with the words “Targeted by Hackers!” or “Discloses Major Data Breach”.

3. Train Your Staff

In most healthcare organizations, mustache-twirling villains in search of private information to exploit aren’t a thing. But simply because most healthcare staff aren’t trained in healthcare IT security, it’s up to you to ensure that everyone understands the role they have to play when it comes to protecting medical information.

Some of the moves you can make in this regard include:

  • Using an organization-wide password manager and generator
  • Not allowing people to have access to information they don’t need for their job duties
  • Making sure that only a few members of the IT department have access to encryption keys or mission-critical software
  • Having company hardware and laptops updated and scanned for malicious software
  • Taking additional steps to minimize the risk of human error causing a catastrophic data breach
  • Showing people how to recognize a phishing email

If you’ve already gotten organizational buy-in at the management level, having employees implement the new steps should be pretty straightforward. But it all starts with sitting people down and giving them a step-by-step guide to your new and improved security practices.

4. Consider Your Physical Security Measures

When it comes to IT security, people will talk about the value of software solutions, updated hardware, and password management. But if you overlook this aspect of data security, you could quickly end up living through your own version of the Facebook outage debacle of 2021.

Are you storing your servers on-prem? Is there a physical patient file that you store in a particular set of filing cabinets? Should you have special markers in place for devices that have a higher level of access to your network?

If you don’t want to end up doing the IT equivalent of locking yourself out of your car while the keys are in the ignition, you’ll want to spend some time focusing on making sure that your files, devices, and servers are physically secure.

After the Rollout

So you’ve thought through your process and you’ve started implementing it within your organization. Is the IT security department’s job done?

Not exactly. There’s still more you can do to maintain your results and keep your security measures running smoothly.

1. Consider Your Storage Options

This one primarily comes down to your IT security strategy. But if you’ve been experiencing success with a less-than-ideal customer data storage solution, this is one area where you can dramatically tighten up your process in a single move.

For instance, there’s an ongoing debate going on in the tech world around cloud storage. And if your senior IT managers feel more comfortable sticking to an on-prem solution, you can still work with that. But consider this:

A stolen laptop that has locally downloaded files and customer information can directly compromise patient information. There are always people looking to buy sensitive information on the dark web and who knows what may have been accessed in the time between the theft and your knowledge of it.

Cloud storage allows you to monitor a few servers without having to worry about local storage.

But, if your team isn’t happy with cloud storage solutions, you still have other options in your arsenal. You can partner with a specialist healthcare IT storage provider or you can work with your dev team to develop a customized software solution.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to keeping customer data safe.

2. Create a Vetting Process for Third-Party Providers

When it comes to HIPAA compliance, you don’t necessarily have the ability to let third-party software providers coast on the strength of their reputations.

Why? Because popular software solutions can still be exploited. Thanks in part to the MediaLab saga, the hoth’s choice would be to do rigorous security and risk assessments on third-party providers and vendors.

You can never be too careful when you’re dealing with outside service providers that you can’t directly control.

3. Have a Crisis Management Strategy

Think fast.

A disgruntled employee has accessed patient information and is posting about it on the dark web. What do you do?

A flaw in your legacy system has forced your network to shut down. What happens next?

An inexperienced IT security specialist would be panicking at this stage. But if you’ve played your cards right, your answer should be, “I call up the incident response team and the PR department.”.

If a legacy system failure shuts down your network, what steps can you take? Who will handle the IT side? How soon should the affected patients be notified?

Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to come up with your response. Have a team that’s equipped to handle incidents when they happen.

Keep Your Patient Information Secure With These Steps

In most healthcare settings, there are a lot of moving pieces. Doctors, nurses, and surgeons need to know what’s happening with patients. At the same time, however, patients need to know that their personal info will be kept safe at all times.

When everyone is doing the best they can, data breaches are all too common. That’s why healthcare organizations need to be vigilant. But here’s the good news:

From in-transit encryption to codified security protocols, handling and protecting patient information is doable. All it takes is patience, thoroughness, and buy-in.

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