Written by: Daniel Haurey on 06/27/24

Simply Google “HIPAA” and you will be overwhelmed with guidance about this impactful and expansive healthcare and privacy compliance standard. But as this law ages, it’s been challenging for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to stay current with evolving technology and cybersecurity challenges. That has led to rules that strive to push this standard forward alongside quickly changing IT and communication solutions. The Privacy and Security Rules are perfect examples, with the first iteration launching in 2003 and subsequent updates announced nearly every year, including new guidance about online tracking technologies in late 2022. At the root of each update is the overarching goal of protecting patient information.

Note: HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a federal law established in 1996 to set the standards for protecting the privacy and security of health information. HIPAA applies to covered entities, such as healthcare insurance providers, care providers, and healthcare practices, plus all the business associates of those organizations, such as vendors, contractors, and consultants, which can access, transmit, or store protected health information (PHI). PHI is any information that can identify a patient or is related to their health condition, treatment, or payment, such as names, Social Security numbers, medical records, diagnoses, prescriptions, insurance, and billing information. HIPAA requires thorough administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI.

Erring on the side of caution when rules are unclear has been the steady guidance from HHS since day one, and it is clear why.  According to the HIPAA Journal, 2023 was a record-breaking year for breached healthcare records, with the number of breaches recorded increasing 156% from 2022, beating the previous record of 113 million records comprised in 2015. In 2023, an average of 373,788 healthcare records were breached every day. The average cost of a data breach in the healthcare sector was $7.13 million, according to the IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report 2020 – a figure that has undoubtedly increased since that report.

To prevent data breaches and comply with HIPAA, healthcare organizations must adopt a proactive and comprehensive approach to cybersecurity. This includes regular risk assessments, developing and enforcing security policies and procedures, training and educating staff on HIPAA and data security best practices, encrypting and backing up data, using strong passwords and multifactor authentication, updating and patching software and systems, monitoring and auditing network activity, and reporting and responding to incidents.

Are You Meeting the Security Requirements of HIPAA?

According to our sister company, Partners in Regulatory Compliance, HIPAA is clear about several security precautions every healthcare practice and provider must take, with data security expectations and definitions baked into the standard for further guidance:

  • Risk Assessment: Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information (PHI) held by the covered entity or business associate.
  • External Penetration Testing: Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronically protected health information held by the covered entity or business associate.
  • Vulnerability Assessment: Implement security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level.
  • Cybersecurity Training: Implement a security awareness and training program for all members of its workforce (including management).
  • Incident Response Plan: Implement policies and procedures to address security incidents.

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  • Acceptable Use Policy: Implement policies and procedures for granting access to electronically protected health information, for example, through access to a workstation, transaction, program, process, or other mechanism. Apply appropriate sanctions against workforce members who fail to comply with the security policies and procedures of the covered entity or business associate.

Beyond those basic HIPAA compliance expectations, any organization governed by HIPAA must consider the components of its network, confirming that the technology in play is compliant as well.

How to Protect Patient Privacy with HIPAA-Compliant Technology

Technology provides the backbone for operations, patient care, and a productive workspace, but it can also create risks to patient privacy if it is not designed, optimized, and then used according to HIPAA standards. What does HIPAA-compliant technology mean? It is hardware or software purpose-built for healthcare use, with HIPAA standard privacy and security safeguards built in.

Those requirements have become even more important as more healthcare employees use personal mobile devices to communicate and collaborate on patient concerns. Many common forms of digital communications are not HIPAA compliant, such as SMS, video conferencing, and email.

The HIPAA Security Rule lists a series of specifications for compliant technology, including:

  • PHI must be encrypted at rest and in motion
  • Each authorized user with access to and the capacity to communicate PHI must have a “unique user identifier” so use of PHI can be logged, monitored, and audited
  • All devices and apps used in healthcare settings must have an automatic log-off to prevent unauthorized access if that mobile device is left unattended  

While using HIPAA-compliant technology alone will not ensure a healthcare organization meets HIPAA compliance, the use of the appropriate technology paired with policies enforcing a thorough cybersecurity posture will help an organization prepare to fully comply with the administrative, physical, and technical requirements of the HIPAA Security Act.

If your organization struggles with HIPAA compliance, let’s talk. Our cybersecurity consultants will collaborate with your team to create a roadmap to fully meet the regulatory requirements of this crucial standard, and ensure your patient information is protected.