Protecting Patient Data: Five Cybersecurity Strategies for Healthcare

June 28, 2024

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For companies in healthcare-related businesses that handle protected health information (PHI), complying with HIPAA regulations is critical. 

Despite what many assume, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies to organizations across many industries, not just healthcare providers. This includes accounting firms, law offices, IT vendors, and more—any company that handles patient data in any capacity. 

HIPAA defines these organizations as “business associates.” These third parties are legally obligated to safeguard the privacy and security of PHI, even if they never interact with a patient directly. Failure to do so—which can occur as a result of a lack of education or lax cybersecurity controls and processes—can result in significant fines and penalties.

This article outlines key requirements and best practices for businesses to achieve and maintain HIPAA compliance. By following these cybersecurity safeguards tailored to protect PHI, organizations can mitigate breach risks and facilitate successful partnerships with healthcare clients. 

Understanding HIPAA

Enacted in 1996, HIPAA outlines national standards to protect the privacy and security of patient health data. The legislation’s three main rules are:

  • Security: Establishes protocols for ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic PHI.
  • Privacy: Governs standards for protecting individually identifiable health information from unauthorized access or disclosure.
  • Breach Notification: Requires covered entities and business associates to notify affected parties following an impermissible release of PHI.

While HIPAA has existed for over twenty years, enforcement efforts have significantly increased. Fines for non-compliance can reach millions of dollars. As more companies enter the healthcare space as business associates, proactively meeting HIPAA obligations is essential to avoid these costly penalties.

Cybersecurity Best Practices for HIPAA Compliance

Achieving and maintaining HIPAA compliance requires business associates to implement a comprehensive cybersecurity program tailored to protecting PHI. 

To establish a thorough cybersecurity program for your organization, incorporate the following best practices.

Best Practice 1: Conduct Risk Assessments

Thorough risk assessments—based on guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR)—are a foundational HIPAA requirement. These assessments systematically identify vulnerabilities that could enable unauthorized PHI access, use, or disclosure.

Here’s an illustration: imagine a mid-sized IT services company that enables hospitals and clinics with an electronic medical records (EMR) system. This system hosts PHI data for healthcare providers, enabling them to easily manage, update and review patient records. But a minor data breach exposes a few patient records, putting the IT services company at risk for costly penalties and damaging their client relationships. 

To prevent the issue from recurring, the company partners with a cybersecurity consultancy to conduct regular risk assessments. The consultancy helps them implement a zero-trust security model where every user and device is continuously verified before granting access to the EMR system and PHI. This reduces unauthorized access risks while also rebuilding their clients’ trust.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-66 outlines a methodology for performing risk assessments. However, this process can be complex, especially for smaller organizations without relevant in-house expertise. Rather than untangling this complex topic alone, companies can engage experienced cybersecurity firms like Smith + Howard to conduct risk assessments aligned with best practices.

Best Practice 2: Access and Identity Management

HIPAA’s Privacy and Security rules require that organizations control who can access PHI. Businesses must implement strict access management controls that grant the minimum necessary PHI access to each individual based on their role and responsibilities.  

An effective identity and access management program should encompass:

  • Role-based access controls and least privilege principles
  • Multi-factor authentication for all systems containing PHI
  • Regular user access reviews and timely revocation of terminated accounts
  • Detailed audit logging of all PHI access activities

To illustrate, let’s say you work with a law firm that represents healthcare clients and handles sensitive case file data containing PHI. After an insider threat incident where a terminated employee still had access to client PHI, your firm now mandates multi-factor authentication for all accounts and applications containing PHI. The firm also implements regular audits to identify and remove any excessive access privileges that could be misused. 

Adopting a strict access management program like this one can help prevent insider threats and data breaches.

Best Practice 3: Employee Training and Awareness  

While technical safeguards are crucial, many data breaches are instead caused by human error. To mitigate this risk, organizations must require ongoing security awareness training to ensure all employees understand their roles in maintaining a secure environment.

This training should cover topics such as:

  • Identifying and avoiding phishing attempts  
  • Using strong, unique passwords
  • Proper protocols for handling and storing PHI
  • Reporting any suspected security incidents promptly

For example, consider a medical billing company that processes patient invoices and payment data. After an employee falls victim to a phishing attack that compromises thousands of patient billing records, the company initiates interactive quarterly training sessions. 

These sessions educate employees on recognizing phishing emails, effective password management processes, understanding protocols for handling PHI, and how to report any suspected security incidents. 

Fostering this culture of security awareness reduces the risk of accidental data exposure and empowers individual team members to protect patient data more effectively.

Best Practice 4: Data Segmentation and Encryption

To limit the impact of any breach, PHI should be segregated from other business data and systems. It should also be encrypted both in transit and at rest, ideally using approved standards.

For example, imagine a firm providing cloud backup services to healthcare clients. PHI is often included in files stored in this cloud backup platform. After suffering a ransomware attack that places not only clients’ but also their patients’ data at risk, the firm deploys advanced endpoint protection software and segments patient data into encrypted environments. 

The endpoint protection software automatically updates virus definitions, patches vulnerabilities, encrypts outgoing PHI, and protects devices and servers from the latest threats. Segregating and securing PHI in this way limits the scope of a potential breach.

Effective data segmentation helps limit the scope of any incident to only the affected PHI repository. It also enables focused security monitoring of the most sensitive data assets.

Best Practice 5: Device and Asset Management  

Businesses must maintain a comprehensive inventory of devices, servers, and other assets that interact with PHI. These systems should receive timely security patches and have robust endpoint protection and monitoring.

Here’s an example. Your consulting firm frequently works on projects for healthcare industry clients, accessing PHI as part of their advisory services. After a laptop with an unencrypted hard drive is stolen from an employee’s vehicle, resulting in a reportable data breach, the firm takes action. 

Your firm implements an automated system to perform daily encrypted backups of all project files containing PHI to a secure off-site location. This backup process ensures PHI can be reliably recovered in incidents like device theft, ransomware, or other data loss scenarios.

To limit risks like these, any device used to access PHI should enforce full disk encryption, remote wipe capabilities, and other safeguards to prevent data exposure from lost or stolen equipment.

Partner with Smith + Howard to Protect Patient Data

Protecting sensitive health data is not just a priority, but a legal obligation for any business that comes into contact with it. Implementing rigorous cybersecurity controls aligned with HIPAA regulations enables you to securely handle PHI while delivering services to healthcare partners.

If your company falls under HIPAA’s broad umbrella, Smith + Howard can help you stay compliant. Our cybersecurity team has extensive experience guiding risk assessments, technical safeguards, and ongoing monitoring in regulated industries like healthcare. 

Contact Smith + Howard to learn more about your organization’s risk factors and how to stay compliant and secure.

How can we help?

If you have any questions and would like to connect with a team member please call 404-874-6244 or contact an advisor below.