Anyone who works in the healthcare industry is well aware of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the need to keep patients’ protected health information (PHI) secure and safe from HIPAA violations. As a result, healthcare organizations go to great lengths to ensure they have technologies and systems in place to keep their data encrypted, safely stored, and out of the reach of hackers.
However, hackers aren’t the only threat to patient privacy and an organization’s ability to comply with HIPAA. More often than not, HIPAA violations actually result not from parties with malicious intent, but rather as a result of carelessness that occurs within the healthcare provider’s own organization.
All it takes is one employee’s failure to follow protocol in keeping patient information secure, and two things can happen: 1) patients are placed at risk because their private information is disclosed to unauthorized parties, and 2) the healthcare organization commits a violation of HIPAA, making them susceptible to expensive fines and a damaged reputation.
In fact, when it comes to causing security breaches, mistakes made in-house are actually to blame more often than many organizations realize. According to research by IBM, “human error” is a contributing factor for more than 95% of all security incidents investigated.
And other research shows that at the typical organization, 88% of employees show a lack of preparedness, training, and resources to protect the privacy and security of sensitive information like patient data. And when surveyed, 69% of healthcare organizations say negligent and careless employees are their top concern for security incidents, with cyberattacks coming in second place at 45%.
If you’re a healthcare IT professional who is responsible for overseeing your organizations’ data security initiatives, this means you need to put as much effort into mitigating internal security threats as you do external threats. One great place to start is with your organization’s communication systems, which include the platforms used by medical and office staff members to send communications like phone calls, text messages, faxes, etc.
Here are three steps you can take to reduce the incidence and impact of user error in the use of your organization’s in-house communications technology…
1. Ensure your systems are both HIPAA-compliant and user-friendly
While no communication technology can guarantee HIPAA compliance (it all depends on whether the platform is being used properly, as we explain in the following section), it’s important to choose a system that has the appropriate security protections in place to prevent any HIPAA violations.
This would be a system that:
- Properly stores all sources of PHI (like voicemails, faxes, patient contact information, etc.) on encrypted hard drives,
- Uses servers that are managed in several geographic locations to mitigate against localized failures,
- Uses aggressive encryption key rotation strategies to maximize safeguards against unauthorized access,
- Is supported by a vendor that is willing to undergo a formal Business Associate Agreement (BAA),
- And more…
In addition to having all the right security standards in place, your platform should also be user-friendly, which will make it easier for members or your organization to use the technology properly. To learn more about how to choose the right HIPAA-compliant phone system, read this.
2. Provide thorough staff training & emphasize the “why”
An organization can have the best HIPAA-compliant communication technology on the market, but it won’t make the slightest difference if staff members aren’t using it the way it was intended.
To help prevent HIPAA violations caused by unnecessary user error, healthcare IT professionals should create a training program that not only instructs all members of their organization on how to use the system from a functionality standpoint (how to look up patient contact information, how to make calls, how to send faxes, etc.), but also how to use the platform in a way that helps to ensure HIPAA compliance (how to know which information can and cannot be sent via SMS messaging, how to set strong passwords, how to keep a mobile device secure when a team member chooses to use the platform’s mobile app, etc.).
To make the training even more effective, the training should always emphasize the “why” behind the best practices that are being presented (e.g., explain how security breaches hurt patients, share the dollar amounts of the monumental fines that could be imposed on the organization for a violation, etc.). The more staff members understand the risks involved in breaking protocol and the more they can see their personal role in keeping both patients and their organization safe from security breaches, the more likely they are to remember and comply with the rules.
In addition to providing training for medical and office staff members upon onboarding, the IT department should also ensure the training materials are well-documented and easily accessible so they can be revisited at any time during the year.
3. Maintain a well-tracked inventory of all work-related mobile devices
One common threat to the security of patient data occurs when a device containing that data is lost or stolen. While you can’t always prevent this from happening, you can take steps that will allow you to respond swiftly when a device goes missing, helping you to prevent vulnerable data from falling into the wrong hands.
Start by creating an inventory of all devices owned by your organization, such as smartphones and tablets that are used in the office, or even taken home by medical personnel, and make sure that inventory is kept up to date with information such as the device’s serial number and the name of the user. Your team should also ensure that every single device is set up with the necessary
Shared responsibility in the security of patient data
HIPAA compliance requires more than just putting the right tools and systems in place for data security—it requires buy-in from the entire organization, and as your organization’s IT director or security engineer, it’s your job to lay the foundation for that buy-in.
If you want to learn more helpful tips for improving your organization’s communications infrastructure while staying compliant with HIPAA, stay tuned for future posts from our team here at RingRx!
RingRx is a HIPAA-compliant phone system and communication platform that helps healthcare providers better protect patient privacy and ensure their organizations are in full compliance of the law to prevent any kind of HIPAA violations. RingRx is built for healthcare organizations of all sizes, from solo practices to multi-location health systems.