5 Best Practices to Protect and Secure ePHI to Comply with HIPAA Standards

Healthcare data breaches are increasing — in fact, they doubled within the first five months of 2022 compared to the same period in the previous year. Thanks in large part to the proliferation of Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) and expanding attack surfaces, attackers have more opportunities today than ever to steal patient data. Distributed care can improve the patient experience and clinical outcomes, but it makes it more challenging to comply with HIPAA. Security is important, but it’s also paramount for healthcare organizations to have the ability to share patient data securely.

HIPAA standards are intentionally vague, allowing organizations to mold their cybersecurity practices to meet HIPAA’s requirements, rather than ticking specific boxes on a checklist. The problem is that organizations often feel like they aren’t sure how, specifically, they can comply with HIPAA. Consumers’ desire for more streamlined healthcare and increasing regulatory mandates require healthcare organizations to share ePHI more than ever before.

If your organization is subject to HIPAA compliance but you aren’t sure where to turn, implementing proven cybersecurity best practices is an excellent starting point. Every organization is different, but your business can better protect ePHI with these five best practices.

1. Robust Access Control

Proper access management prevents unauthorized parties from accessing patient data — whether it be internal employees or external attackers. In practice, your organization can implement access control by:

  • Forbidding shared logins or passwords
  • Requiring a unique, strong password for all your systems
  • Only authorizing ePHI access to employees who need it to do their jobs
  • Implementing automatic timeouts when a user is inactive
  • Revoking employee ePHI access once it’s no longer needed

2. Risk Analyses

HIPAA requires organizations to do a risk analysis at least once a year. Although it’s an audit requirement, regular risk analyses can help you identify your shortcomings and create a cybersecurity plan that fits your exact needs.

To conduct a risk analysis, your team needs to:

  • Identify all ePHI in your organization
  • Look at how you store and access ePHI
  • Assess which risks and vulnerabilities are in your system
  • Put safeguards in place to address vulnerabilities as best as possible

This isn’t about conducting a risk analysis and then dropping the matter. The purpose of a risk analysis is to mitigate risk. Since every business has risk of some kind, whether for ePHI or PII, it’s important to know where you stand and make an actionable plan to address your shortcomings.

3. Documented Policies and Procedures

HIPAA requires you to have officially documented policies and procedures for protecting ePHI. Employees need access to the latest version of your policies and procedures, which means they must be available to everyone in your organization who handles ePHI.

Keep in mind that policies and procedures are living documents. Threats change and HIPAA requirements change, so you need to update these documents over time and share any changes with your team.

HIPAA also requires you to keep these documents on file for at least six years for audit purposes, so make sure your system keeps track of all document versions.

4. Network Security

There’s no such thing as a perfectly impenetrable network, but your organization can prevent most attacks with proper network security. This might mean implementing:

  • End-to-end encryption, so even if attackers access your information, it won’t be decipherable
  • Antivirus protection and firewalls to prevent malicious bugs or viruses from entering your network
  • Automatic software updates and patches to remove known vulnerabilities from your software
  • Network segmentation to mitigate damage in the event of a breach

5. Employee Training

Employees cause the majority of HIPAA breaches. This is why training employees not only on HIPAA, but also on cybersecurity best practices, can help keep your ePHI secure and ensure compliance.

You need a culture of compliance that clearly differentiates safe and unsafe practices. However, culture will only get you so far. Make sure you regularly train employees on:

  • What ePHI is
  • How to protect it
  • Your ePHI policies
  • What’s at risk if they fail to comply

If you make changes to your policies, inform your team. It’s a good idea to require employees to sign off, in writing, that they understand the changes in your policies, too.

Follow HIPAA While Securing Your Network

ePHI breaches pose a serious risk to patient privacy, patient safety, and patient outcomes. With the addition of mobile phones, tablets, and patient portals in your organization, the chances of a breach occurring multiply by the second.

Proper ePHI protection requires a multi-pronged approach. Training employees, designing a resilient infrastructure, and implementing strict access control can help, but traditional cybersecurity best practices aren’t enough. These practices aren’t designed to protect ePHI in today’s decentralized, virtual healthcare environment.

Security and compliance in the modern era requires visibility into ePHI, how it’s secured, and how it’s used and moved throughout the organization and beyond. Contact us today to learn more about ePHI security, and how Tausight can provide visibility into your organization’s ePHI to help you secure the new security perimeter — clinicians — without hindering productivity.

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David Ting

Founder and CTO, Tausight

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