7 June, 2023

Healthcare deals with patient information at every level, from the bedside and lab, to diagnostic data retrieval and analysis, and to medications and post-care protocols. Protecting the privacy of patient information is essential and is safeguarded by industry ethics and a host of regulatory requirements.

Regulatory Compliance is a Front-burner Issue

Every healthcare organization, from a community clinic to a pharmaceutical firm, must comply with regulations that protect the privacy of patient information, particularly personal identifiable information (PII).

Some of the key privacy and compliance regulation issues in healthcare include:

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): HIPAA is a U.S. federal law that establishes national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge. Healthcare providers, health plans, and other entities that handle Protected Health Information (PHI) must comply with HIPAA regulations to ensure the privacy and security of patient data.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs): The transition from paper-based records to electronic health records has improved the efficiency of healthcare delivery but has also introduced new privacy and security challenges. Protecting EHRs from unauthorized access, ensuring secure data transmission, and implementing proper access controls are essential to maintain patient privacy.

Consent and Patient Rights: Patients have the right to understand how their health information will be used, disclosed, and shared. Consent processes ensure that patients have given informed consent for the collection, use, and disclosure of their data. Healthcare organizations must also respect patients' rights to access, correct, and control their own health information.

The Healthcare Ecosystem Presents Unique Challenges

The transition from paper to electronic data gathering has improved the efficiency and efficacy of healthcare. However, electronic gathering, storage, and sharing of information presents new challenges:

Data Breaches: Healthcare organizations are prime targets for data breaches. Medical records contain sensitive information and that generates high value on the black market. Breaches can occur through cyberattacks, insider threats, or physical theft of devices. Data breaches can result in the exposure of personal information, leading to identity theft, fraud, or other malicious activities.

Third-Party Vendor Management: Healthcare providers often engage with third-party vendors for services like cloud storage, data analytics, or telehealth platforms. While a hospital or lab may have secure in-house protections for patient data, that data becomes subject to a new set of vulnerabilities when shared with a third-party, both in transit and on-site at the third-party location. These vendors must comply with high standards of security and have safeguards in place, backed by business associate agreements (BAAs) that attest to their commitment to protect patient data. In many cases, a healthcare organization can be held legally liable for leaks of patient information from a vendor or third party.

International Data Transfer: Healthcare organizations that operate globally or engage with international partners must navigate the challenges of cross-border data transfer. Compliance with regulations such as the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires ensuring adequate data protective measures are in place when transferring data across jurisdictions.

Emerging Technologies: The adoption of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and wearable health trackers have improved the speed of patient data storage and analytics but have also created a fresh set of privacy challenges. Hackers and cybercriminals are familiar with the standard protocols of collecting and storing patient information and can use AI and other advanced analytics to breach an organization’s privacy defenses. Healthcare IT departments and privacy and regulatory experts must constantly monitor data collection and distribution to ward off these challenges.

Meeting the Challenges of Document Privacy & Compliance

To ensure compliance and protect patient privacy, healthcare organizations must establish robust policies, implement appropriate technical and administrative safeguards, conduct risk assessments, and stay updated with evolving regulations and best practices in privacy and security.

Among the measures that address the challenge:

Document Encryption: Encrypt patient medical documents both at rest and in transit. Use industry-standard encryption protocols (e.g., AES-256) to protect data while stored on servers or during transmission over networks. This helps prevent unauthorized access or interception of documents by unauthorized users, most notably hackers and cybercriminals. Some security software providers automatically encrypt documents as they are uploaded and feature advanced security protocols, such as the ability to “remotely shred” a document even after it has been downloaded.

Secure Storage: Patient medical records and attendant diagnostic and analytics documents must be archived in an ultra-secure environment. Choose a secure storage solution with appropriate access controls and encryption capabilities. Implement data backups and disaster recovery plans to prevent data loss and ensure patient care continues unabated.

Access Controls: Healthcare organizations must implement appropriate access controls to ensure that only authorized personnel have access to patient information. Controls should include user authentication mechanisms such as strong passwords, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and role-based access control (RBAC) that restrict a user’s activities to specific actions, such as read-only, print, share, and download.

Secure File Transfer: Use secure file transfer protocols (e.g., SFTP or HTTPS) when sharing documents externally. Always avoid sending patient information via unencrypted email attachments or sharing via insecure file-sharing services like Box, DropBox. Google Drive, Microsoft SharePoint & OneDrive.

Audit Trails and Logging: Enable comprehensive logging and auditing features to track user activities with patient information documents. This monitoring activity helps identify any suspicious activities and provides a detailed history of user interactions with patient information that inform an investigation or regulatory audit.

Privacy and Security Training: Healthcare organization employees should receive regular training on privacy and security practices. This training should cover topics such as data handling, password security, phishing awareness, and the proper use of technology systems. Regular audits and assessments are essential to identify and address any privacy or security vulnerabilities.

ShareVault: Ultra-secure Document Protections.

ShareVault has been serving the Healthcare and Life Sciences industries for more than 15 years. A ShareVault virtual data room (VDR) provides an ultra-secure environment for storing, accessing, and sharing confidential information like patient records, and the virtual data room administrator can grant or remove access at the click of a button. The ShareVault support team can provide a VDR solution customized to a healthcare organization’s unique needs, then back it up with 24/7/365 tech support.

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