The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires hospitals and healthcare institutions to set up and implement measures to protect the privacy and security of their patient’s health information. It became law in 1996 in response to the numerous incidents and complaints among patients. At first, only healthcare organizations were considered covered by the regulations. But it was later amended to include service providers and business associates.
There are still numerous healthcare institutions and businesses which aren’t aware that they have to comply with the HIPAA Rules. They might be very lax about the management of their documents and records. Their servers might just be sitting duck waiting for a criminal to hack their database and steal patient information. If you want to know more about compliance requirements, read on. Here are a few suggested ways to help you preserve data privacy in healthcare.
1. Come Up With A Rule Book
One essential tip to preserving data privacy is to create a rule book that everybody can use. You may call this rule book your compliance handbook or manual, but what’s important is that it should be a written reference that contains what each team and each member should do. It should also have the standards, regulations, and guidelines mandated by the HIPAA to be followed by healthcare institutions, other covered entities, and their business associates.
Aside from legal references, your rule book should contain practical criteria which can be used by your internal teams to measure compliance. It would help if you can write down a brief description of the functions, duties, and responsibilities of all the internal teams and their members. You can also put in a checklist of what they need to do in any situation. It will help reduce the risk that your healthcare organization might commit that can be considered a breach of the HIPAA.
You can also use this rule book to track the status of your organization’s programs and efforts to comply with healthcare laws and regulations.
2. Custom Training
A rule book wouldn’t be of much use if you don’t train your staff and other employees about what’s expected of them and what they’re required to do to avoid committing violations of HIPAA rules. You should train your employees on HIPAA security and privacy regulations.
Everyone in your business organization should understand the rudiments of what they should handle to comply with healthcare laws. It is highly important if you want to achieve consistency in the observance of HIPAA rules throughout your healthcare institution or business organization. All your staff should know what needs to be done in every scenario to deliver excellent healthcare service without compromising compliance.
An added tip is that you should ask your service provider for training and learning to give training sessions that are custom-made or specifically tailored for a particular team in your organization. For instance, separate training should be given to employees who directly handle the data coding and information about patients and those who process medical billing solutions. They should have enough training such that they won’t have to glance at the rule book all the time to make sure that what they’re doing complies with HIPAA.
3. Develop Administrative Systems
You should develop administrative safeguards to implement your compliance policies and programs. The policies and programs aren’t enough on their own, especially if you’re working for a large hospital or healthcare institution. They’re just the list of dos and don’ts. But to make sure that they’re implemented, you need to develop processes and mechanisms. The administrative safeguards are the mechanisms and processes that ensure that your policies and programs are followed and implemented by your staff and employees.
The purpose of having administrative safeguards is to bring to the lowest minimum any potential risk that any of your staff and employees may commit that might compromise the electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) that they’re handling. The policies and programs will only tell them what the rules are. The administrative safeguards will ensure they follow the rules regardless of their access to sensitive ePHI.
4. Put Up Physical Safeguards
Administrative safeguards would only work if staff and employees would be mindful to follow them. But for those who are bent on breaching them, even the best-conceived processes and measures won’t be enough to deter them. For this reason, you should also consider physical safeguards to serve as another layer of barrier against any potential risk of breach of data privacy and security.
These physical safeguards would serve as reinforcements to your administrative safeguards. For example, you can limit access to the confidential documents and paperwork in your office only to a select group of staff and employees.
You should have a storage room for all the sensitive and confidential documents and records of patients and clients. Access to this storage room should be limited to authorized personnel and should be secured whenever not in use or not being accessed by authorized employees. This can serve as an added barrier. It can help deter unauthorized access. Also, consider locking up your server and mainframes when not in use.
5. Set Up Technical Restrictions
Aside from administrative and physical safeguards, another vital layer of security which you should consider is setting up technical restrictions in your IT system and network. Your priority here is to enhance your management controls over the levels and extent of your staff’s access to your database and servers. If you have a lot of staff, you should identify their level of access. You should specify to your IT consultant what servers and folders you’ll allow every employee or group of employees to have access to.
For example, you don’t need to authorize your accounting staff to have access to servers and folders containing databases on sensitive information about the illnesses or treatments of your healthcare patients. On the other hand, you don’t need to give your healthcare professionals access to your servers and folders containing financial information about your patients and their medical billing statements and records. You can ask your IT consultant to set up restrictions and solutions for your IT needs.
6. Don’t Allow Sharing Of Login Credentials
Each of your medical staff who works using a computer should have unique login credentials to access servers, networks, or folders that contain sensitive ePHI. Logins function as a restriction against unauthorized users. Those without proper logins won’t be able to access restricted areas of your servers, databases, and folders.
Another security function of logins is providing a list of logs into specific accounts in your network. These logs are recorded by your system and network. Your network administrators can see who accessed which accounts on specific dates and times. The logs would have the stamp of the computer used and the time. You can also ask your IT consultant to set up your system that records what a certain account accessed, what folders they downloaded or saved.
7. Shred Wastepaper Containing Sensitive Information
The HIPAA rules require healthcare institutions to protect sensitive information whether in their electronic form or their paper form. Given that some of the documents and papers containing sensitive patient information could be left on top of tables, station counters, or sometimes even inside admission wards and suites after a patient leaves them there. You should instruct all medical staff and employees to shred all wastepaper that contains sensitive information.
Keep in mind that the HIPAA requires hospitals and healthcare institutions to protect sensitive patient health information found even in records in hard paper copies. These copies should be rendered indecipherable, unreadable, and unreconstructed. You may opt to run these piles of wastepaper through shredders where its texts will be shredded into small strips.
8. Promote A Culture Of Privacy Protection
There are several ways by which any of your staff can commit an act that may compromise data privacy. It could also be because of something which they forgot to do. Either of these two or their combination with other lapses can open up your system or network to the threat of a privacy intrusion or network breach. It is essential in telehealth platforms and practices.
One of the best ways to prevent exposure of sensitive patient information is by nurturing a culture of privacy protection among your staff and employees. They should be trained so that they will not only do what needs to be done in specific situations. They should be conscious of what the situation requires to keep sensitive patient information protected at all times.
Many private and government healthcare agencies and organizations implement the best practices to promote a culture of data privacy protection. Because healthcare organizations recognize the problem in data privacy, they set preventive and proactive cybersecurity measures across their internal business systems and digital assets.
For instance, CareQuest Institute conducts free webinars, which are available as recordings for user convenience. These webinars are only accessible upon user registration to safeguard the healthcare platform and subscribers from unscrupulous users. Such preventive security measures make data monitoring and breach mitigation more difficult.
One of the most formidable challenges to a healthcare institution’s IT system and network is how to defend against cybersecurity threats. With so many unscrupulous organizations scouting for healthcare databases that they can harvest and later sell in the black market, keeping a tight IT system and network for their hospitals and healthcare institutions can be a very daunting task. You can ask your IT consultant about your concerns with IT. They can set up measures that would improve your cybersecurity defenses.
Cybersecurity solution providers can help deploy multi-layer and more sophisticated security measures to help healthcare organizations combat threats and vulnerabilities. For instance, zero-trust network access can help healthcare IT teams effortlessly verify user identity, user privileges, and access policy without connecting them to the corporate network.
Cybercriminals send malicious emails to patients and healthcare organizations, compromising security. Opening these emails can lead to automatic downloads of Trojans and other malware, which transfer sensitive data to cybercriminals. If this happens, healthcare institutions are at risk of ransomware and other dire business consequences. IT experts can help reduce these by providing preventative measures against phishing incidents.
The HIPAA Rules mandate not just hospitals and healthcare institutions but also their service providers and business associates to protect PHI whether in their paper form or their electronic form. There are critical elements to maintaining data privacy in the healthcare industry. Some of them were discussed in this article.
By Hanji Grant
Bio: Hanji Grant is a data privacy analyst. He conducts webinars and podcasts to share his expertise and knowledge in data privacy and issues. Hanji enjoys swimming, surfing, and scuba diving in his free time.