June 17, 2024

The Importance of Patient Data Security (Plus 5 Best Practices)

Why is healthcare data security so important, and how can you mitigate future risks? 

When you visit a doctor or any medical professional today, you assume that your personal health information is stored securely and never disclosed without your permission. However, this wasn’t always the case with medical records. In offices, clinics, and hospitals technology allows an almost seamless sharing of information between providers, who have a wealth of new devices and systems at their disposal to help evaluate patients and track their health profiles. 

Patient data security is essential as most records are now kept electronically in our modern world, and even though great effort is taken to keep this information secure, there is always the threat of an attack or a breach. So how can you expect to keep this type of information secure?

We’ll be discussing all that and more in this article, including:

  • What patient data is and why it’s so important
  • The challenges of protecting patient data
  • Essential strategies to protect patient information

What is patient data and how did we get here?

The rise of electronic patient records

Patient data wasn’t always in the electronic form it is today!

Up until the 1980s and 1990s, patient data was transcribed on paper, and stored in files and put away in cabinets. This information could include personal information, medical history, diagnoses, and any treatment plans. Eventually this method was gradually replaced with the growth in computers, both in businesses and in personal homes. It only seemed natural that medical data should be transferred into electronic form, which could replace the need for all the physical storage needed for paper files. Electronic health records (EHRs) would make access to information and sharing that information much easier, but all that protected health information (PHI) needed to stay secure. This is why in 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was signed into federal law. 

HIPAA ensures that anyone who has access to patient data including healthcare workers, third party vendors, health plan administrators, and other business associates cannot disclose patient information without their consent. As a result, healthcare IT services now manage all the data systems that hold this sensitive information and work diligently to keep PHI secure and away from cyber intruders. Almost all patient data is stored electronically, and cybercriminals are increasingly attacking healthcare facilities to access this sensitive information. The risk of a data breach or a hacker gaining access to data means healthcare IT systems must have solid measures of protection in place.

Why is protecting healthcare data so important?

Who has access to your patient data matters

Healthcare facilities work hard to keep their patient data protected from cyber threats.

Every healthcare facility, hospital, and office has their own electronic system of storing and sharing data. In order to provide a smooth experience for patients, there are lots of programs and applications that are storing sensitive personal data, including computers, tablets, phones, and other essential machines. Because of the constant movement of data, there’s a higher risk of this information being compromised due to a cyber attack. Cyber criminals are always looking for a way to breach the security protocols in healthcare systems, but why does it seem like they’re targeting healthcare facilities in particular? Because where else can you find volumes of personal information altogether that can be very useful for criminal purposes. 

Medical files contain information like social security numbers, addresses, birthdays, and medical histories, which is why they’ve been singled out for attacks.

Identity theft

One of the main drivers behind the targeting of healthcare systems patient data is for identity theft. This is when someone gains access to your personal information and starts to open accounts, steals your money, files taxes, or makes purchases under your name. Medical records contain all the right information for a criminal to easily steal and use your identity to do all kinds of things.

Insurance fraud

Another major driver behind stealing patient data is to commit insurance fraud. When hackers have access to not only your personal information, but also your medical history, diagnoses, and treatments, they can file false claims with insurance companies in the hopes of stealing any compensation that would be forthcoming. This hits patients especially hard because in addition to having all their information put out there on the dark web, they now have the headache of cleaning up a fraudulent insurance claim. 

Compromised patient care

When a medical facility experiences a data breach, it can also lead to compromised patient care. Unauthorized access to the IT system can limit the easy transfer of patient data, and may create unnecessary wait times for procedures or treatment. Medical professionals may be locked out of applications or accounts they regularly use for patient data, or worse, can inhibit the use of life-saving healthcare technology. 

Often during these breaches the criminals will hold the computer systems hostage until a specific demand is met (usually a financial sum), which is known as a ransomware attack. The healthcare facility is unable to access any of their systems until the demand is met. 

The challenges of protecting patient data 

Why is it so difficult to protect patient data?

It is challenging but not impossible to secure patient data

Data breaches can happen to any type of facility, not just healthcare organizations. Data attacks also continue to happen to banks, credit card companies, and other businesses. However, as we mentioned, healthcare data storage offers criminals all kinds of information about a patient in one place. This is why the growth of healthcare cybersecurity has seen a tremendous uptick in the past decade. Hospitals and clinics need to defend themselves and have developed robust plans and systems to help keep those without authorization out of files and applications. 

There are some unique challenges to keeping PHI secure, including:

Continuously evolving threats

Hospitals can’t rely on tactics that kept the threat of breach at bay 10 years ago since technology is constantly evolving. Unfortunately, even what may have worked a few years ago probably isn’t enough since not only do we keep advancing technologically, but so do the tactics of cyber criminals. It seems like for every wall that healthcare IT can put up to keep unauthorized users out, criminals find a way to work around that wall. Then not only do cyber security analysts have to keep that threat away, they have to prepare for what could come next. The result is a constant vigilance that requires a lot of resources and training to ensure that it’s done correctly. The field of cyber security itself has increased over the past few years as the threat of these attacks has grown.

Security measures always need to be evaluated, and this isn’t just for computers and tablets, but for any device that is connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). This could include machines with smart technology or even cameras that are outside and monitor the physical location of the facility. If they’re connected to the internet, there’s a chance they can be hacked.

Meeting regulatory compliance standards

It is a federal law that every healthcare facility and party that deals with patient data must adhere to HIPPA. Because of this, all of these entities that have access to sensitive patient information must have their own security protocols in place to protect the privacy of patients or face federal penalties. Keeping up with security measures can be costly, and not all organizations have the budget to invest a lot of time and money into employing the professionals it takes to keep their systems secure. However it is a requirement, and even smaller facilities must find a way to ensure data is stored and transferred securely. 

Healthcare is complex

Each time you go into a healthcare facility you probably notice they have their own system that works in their particular environment. All the way from large hospitals down to small practitioners have a healthcare IT system that is used to manage patient data. In addition to this system, there are often IoT devices and internal applications that make patient care easier, but offer more vulnerable spots for criminals to target. 

It’s hard for healthcare organizations to keep up with the pace of developing technology, and it can be quite expensive as well. This is why you’ll also see older systems still being used in some places, which cannot support the new security measures required to prevent unauthorized access and just give another portal that criminals can attack. 

So what can your healthcare facility do to help to enhance patient data security? While these aren’t the only strategies you can employ, they are the 5 essential tips you can implement to decrease the risk of a hack. 

5 Strategies for Protecting Patient Information

1. Educate staff

One of the largest threats to effectively protecting patient data is still the human factor. There are all kinds of people in a variety of positions who contribute to patient care, and may have authorized access to patient data. This increases the chance that someone may inadvertently make a poor security decision or an error that can result in a data breach. 

It’s important to educate the staff on all the updated security best practices (and keep that training ongoing) so that they’re aware of new threats or why new protocols like multi-factor authentication are being put into place. This way they can make better decisions when it comes to handling patient data.

2. Limit access

Another great way to reduce human error is to limit access to patient data and healthcare applications to only those who need it to perform their jobs. Creating levels of access/permissions means that only those with the need to know can get into sensitive files even if they are using a shared system or device that requires a login. 

3. Encrypt data at rest and in transit 

Encrypting data both at rest and when it is being transferred is a great way to prevent a data leak. What’s amazing about this strategy is that even if the criminals get their hands on the data, since it’s encrypted, they cannot do anything with it. The data is then useless since they can’t decipher it. 

4. Be aware of the Internet of Things (IoT)

While we know it’s imperative to secure computers, phones, and tablets, don’t forget about all the devices on the Internet of Things, which can include a variety of healthcare machines and tools. Try to keep these items on a network separate from the one that hosts the data, in case one of these devices gets compromised. You can always disable services that are non-essential so that the tool will only do exactly what it is that you require. Ensure that these devices are also regularly updated so they can be protected with the latest security measures.

5. Backup data offsite

Regularly backing up data securely offsite is another great strategy to protect patient data. If a breach happens onsite, especially in the case of ransomware attacks, you will be totally locked out of your systems with no access. With backup data in another location, you still have access to patient data in a secured site.

Protecting patient data is an ongoing task, but it can be done effectively!

The move to electronic medical records has given rise to cyber criminals looking to steal personal information. Healthcare facilities are especially at risk because of the type of information they store. While it is a challenging and ongoing task, protecting patient data can be successfully done. Employing best practices is key to keeping this sensitive information secure.

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