Violating the HIPAA act can be costly. This year alone, over $17M in fines have already been dished out to healthcare organizations across the US for the variety of ways they’ve neglected to meet compliance. Although the above number is a culmination of larger fines, it’s important that everyone in the healthcare industry understand that even small-scale infractions can land you on the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) breach portal, also known in the industry as the “Wall of Shame”. This means that not only do healthcare practices have to pay up – their reputations are at stake.
The HIPAA compliance Rules and Safeguards
When trying to maintain HIPAA compliance, keeping up with the regulations can be tricky. The rules are broad and are often violated unintentionally. Creating a HIPAA compliant environment essentially involves following two main rules that go hand-in-hand; both of which revolve around protecting patient health information (PHI). There’s the Privacy rule and the Security rule. The Privacy Rule mainly focuses on the individual’s right to have access to and use their personal information, and covers the confidentiality of PHI. The Security Rule outlines the three separate data protection safeguards that healthcare institutions must follow to keep PHI safe. Adhering to the administrative, physical, and technical safeguards is what creates a compliant environment when handling PHI.
Many healthcare organizations with a large staff appoint a HIPAA champion who’s familiar with the compliance regulations and can oversee security standards and the handling of PHI, but this isn’t always the case. Regardless of the size of your staff, it’s crucial that all health professionals are familiar with the fundamentals of the Security Rule as a basis of conduct. To avoid HIPAA violations that can cost your organization thousands of dollars and damage the patient relationships you’ve worked hard to establish, let’s take a look at a few tips for day-to-day conduct that can help maintain compliance and keep PHI safe.
1. Provide ongoing HIPAA compliance training
From metropolitan hospitals to private GP practices, one thing’s for sure: the healthcare practice is a busy place. Whether or not your organization has an appointed HIPAA compliance champion, the bulk of a single training session can be easily forgotten by staff once they continue to go about their busy days. For this reason, best practices for protecting PHI need to be instilled and re-instilled into the minds of healthcare workers. Regular training helps keep the information fresh and ensures that everyone’s on-board when new policies are put into place.
2. Assign role-based security levels
Not everyone in a healthcare organization needs access to patient files. Assigning different, role-based security levels prevents employees from either intentionally or accidentally seeing PHI that doesn’t apply to their job duties.
3. Pay attention to requested patient contact methods
It may seem like calling a patient at work when they requested to be contacted on their cell phone isn’t a big deal, but this small yet often overlooked action isn’t HIPAA compliant. Easily avoid this pitfall by always checking a patient’s preferred contact method.
4. Prioritize computer security
Making digital safety a priority is a major part of adhering to the HIPAA safeguards, and just a few small tweaks can go a long way in protecting PHI:
- Reception areas, nurse’s stations and the like are hubs for busy activity. Make sure all computers require a password after being idle for a predetermined amount of time in case anyone forgets to log off. Remember to never share passwords between coworkers.
- To guarantee that PHI is reasonably safe against viruses and malware, make sure that all computers and laptops in the building are equipped with antivirus software. Most antivirus applications keep themselves up-to-date on their own.
- Keep safety protocols in place for anytime staff needs to bring laptops home or otherwise work remotely.
- Make sure that PHI is thoroughly deleted from any leased computer equipment to avoid sensitive data falling into the wrong hands unnecessarily.
5. Know the rules when using email to send PHI
Maintaining HIPAA compliance involves strict policies when it comes to transmitting PHI. The healthcare industry is becoming increasingly paperless as HIPAA awareness is raised, leaving email as the most popular means for transmitting PHI. The average email server just won’t cut it for the security levels required to establish a HIPAA-friendly environment. Making sure only authorized personnel have access to PHI is a huge step in the right direction, but there are several other things to keep in mind:
- Most hackers gain access to sensitive data via email when it’s in transit. Make sure to use an email provider that encrypts data while its en route to recipients.
- When using encryption, keep in mind that the contents of an email get encrypted but the subject line does not. Use generic subject lines with PHI transmissions to patients and providers.
- Train administrative staff to maintain records of logins, as well as sent and received messages. In case and sensitive data falls into the wrong hands, you’ll want to make sure your organization can demonstrate security protocols by maintaining an audit trail.
Given all the HIPAA email-related provisions that healthcare establishments need to keep in mind, an alternative might be to ditch email altogether. A cloud fax or secure file exchange solution with robust security features, for example, not only takes away the hassle of using hardware, it can also maintain an audit trail and ensure that PHI is fully protected whether in transmission or storage. Want to find out more about safer alternatives for transmitting PHI? Speak with an expert today to learn which solution would work best for your organization’s needs.