What You Need to Know about Patient Data Security

October 12, 2020

Patient data security is a crucial part of any healthcare practice. Orthopedic clinics, like any business, have to be very careful about how they handle sensitive information. However, meeting healthcare data security standards can be a challenge.

Why is patient data security such a big issue for orthopedic clinics? What healthcare data security standards should your orthopedic practice know about? Most importantly, how can your clinic improve its health information security practices to better protect patient data?

Why Patient Data Security Matters

To criminals, the healthcare industry is a prime target for data theft. Care providers collect vast amounts of sensitive information from their patients—such as patient health histories, payment card information, and other personally identifiable information that could be used to carry out identity theft or financial fraud.

How pervasive is patient data theft? According to statistics cited by the HIPAA Journal: 

“Between 2009 and 2019, there have been 3,054 healthcare data breaches involving more than 500 records. Those breaches have resulted in the loss, theft, exposure, or impermissible disclosure of 230,954,151 healthcare records.”

Note that this number equals about 70% of the U.S. population, and that this figure is based solely on “large” patient information breaches—it doesn’t account for smaller breaches that may occur.

These data security breaches open patients up to potential fraud. Additionally, clinics that don’t meet healthcare data security standards may be open to fines and penalties—not to mention being exposed to potential public embarrassment if a breach of their patients’ data does occur. So, data security in healthcare is incredibly important.

What You Should Know about the HIPAA Healthcare Data Security Standard

The major regulation that directly address data security in the healthcare industry is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This Act, which was first enacted in 1996, codified a set of general security standards/requirements for organizations involved in the healthcare industry (health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, healthcare providers, etc.) to follow.

The HIPAA Security Rule states that electronic Protected Health Information (e-PHI) should be protected using “reasonable and appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards.” Specifically, orthopedic clinics need to*:

  1. Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all e-PHI they create, receive, maintain, or transmit;
  2. Identify and protect against reasonably anticipated threats to the security or integrity of the information;
  3. Protect against reasonably anticipated, impermissible uses or disclosures; and
  4. Ensure compliance by their workforce.

*List pulled from the HHS.gov page on the HIPAA Security Rule. Accessed 07/01/20.

The challenge with these guidelines is that they are vaguely-worded. This is largely intended to allow for some flexibility in how the rules are applied to organizations of different sizes. As noted on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) website:

“HHS recognizes that covered entities range from the smallest provider to the largest, multi-state health plan. Therefore the Security Rule is flexible and scalable to allow covered entities to analyze their own needs and implement solutions appropriate to their specific environments.”

In other words, HHS doesn’t expect a small private practice to have the same safeguards as an enormous health insurance provider. However, clinics do still need to take some basic data security precautions to protect patient information.

Tips for Keeping Patient Data Safe

What do orthopedic clinics need to do to meet HIPAA healthcare data security standards and protect e-PHI? Here are a few tips that can help clinics of any size get started on improving their information security:

  1. Make a List of Your Clinic’s Electronic Devices. To get a good idea of what needs to be protected, conduct a small audit of the clinic’s electronic devices and software. This is vital for ensuring that all devices and software are accounted for when assessing patient data safety risks and future security solution implementations.
  2. Conduct a Risk Analysis. HIPAA specifically calls for covered entities “to perform risk analysis as part of their security management processes.” This analysis looks at the clinic’s software and hardware resources, common cyber threats, and the clinic’s data handling processes to identify how likely certain risks to e-PHI data are, what their impacts are, and possible solutions for mitigating those risks. Such analysis is not a “one and done” process, but rather a continuous one that needs to be performed regularly as security needs inevitably change.
  3. Create Processes for Safely Handling Patient Data. Patient health information and other data should be processed carefully to avoid accidental exposure. There needs to be a consistent process for requesting access to patient data, guidelines for when and how that data can be transmitted, and even managing how data is stored by the clinic.
  4. Install Basic Antivirus/Anti-malware Tools. Every device in the practice that connects to the internet or to other devices should, at a minimum, have a basic antivirus or anti-malware solution installed on it. These solutions help clinics detect intrusion attempts early and prevent the installation of potentially harmful software onto computers, laptops, tablets, etc.

Phoenix Ortho is not a cybersecurity firm. However, our EHR software suite built specifically for orthopedics is designed to be HIPAA data privacy and security rule-compliant. We use a fully-integrated suite of software solutions for our EHR software platform as well as access control and data protection solutions that satisfy healthcare data security requirements.

Learn more about how Phoenix Ortho’s EHR platform helps your clinic save time while keeping your patient data secure by contacting our team today.

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