PHI Security is Paramount, Even During the Pandemic – Are You Ensuring It?

Matt Gibson
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While COVID-19 is still affecting almost the entire world, several countries are being forced to lift lockdowns after months of social distancing. The US is no exception, and while many organizations have chosen remote work for reducing infection cases, others are having to reopen, such as healthcare providers. Still, they will not be opening fully, but in phases, to curb the infection rates and minimize cases within their employees as much as possible. For instance, work schedules where employees will come in on alternate days and work remotely on the other days will most likely be a common strategy. However, telehealth has exploded in terms of growth and is here to stay, and organizations dealing with PHI (protected health information) need to ensure PHI security for HIPAA compliance. Let’s see why it is important and how it can be achieved.

Why PHI security matters

To put it simply, as per the HIPAA rules, PHI encompasses anything and everything that can help identify a patient. It is related to the patient’s past, present, or future status and is made, obtained, provided, or maintained by the covered entity. The information is PHI as long as a patient can be identified using it. Some common examples of PHI are names, geographical data, phone numbers, fax numbers, email addresses, dates, Social Security numbers, account numbers, and so on. It can be well understood that this is sensitive information and can easily be used to identify individuals.

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PHI disclosure leads to privacy violations –  others would get to know about their medical conditions, and patients might not be comfortable sharing such sensitive information. Another reason to ensure PHI security is to safeguard it against unauthorized usage – hackers steal PHI and sell it to the black market, where the buyers can use the information to assume the identity of the patient, committing medical identity theft. These lead to HIPAA violations as well, with organizations facing hefty fines as a result. Moreover, providers may face retaliation from patients too in the form of lawsuits if they do not take corrective actions. Thus, securing PHI is one of the most important jobs of healthcare professionals.

While some HIPAA penalties have been relaxed due to the pandemic, it does not allow unauthorized disclosure of PHI in any way. On the contrary, hackers are targeting the US healthcare system even more, since they know that it is more vulnerable as workers are all spread out. Let’s see some ways in which PHI security can be ensured during the pandemic by remote healthcare workers and physicians providing telehealth services.

Enhance PHI security

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Cover the basics

Most organizations are so focused on advanced security aspects that they overlook the smaller ones, which forces them to fall for the most basic traps set by hackers. Thus, organizations must ensure that their employees, both remote workers and on the premises, use complex passwords. Thanks to 2FA (two-factor authentication) being common nowadays, it should be used by all the employees as well. Other simple rules like encryption as well as usage of only authorized devices should be enforced for better security. Even if stolen, the data on the compromised devices will be scrambled and meaningless for the culprits, rendering it useless for unauthorized usage. 

Keep employees updated regarding changes in security strategies

HIPAA violations are occurring daily. Instead of enforcing tighter security strategies and thinking that PHI is safe, analyzing and learning why and how the recent data breaches occurred can help immensely. Examining the data breaches can give firsthand information and valuable insights as to how and where the hackers target providers. For instance, the most common method is phishing – hackers assume the identity of an employee and send dangerous links to employees. Upon clicking the link, hackers gain access to the employees’ email accounts. You can use this information to update your security policies. Keep your employees in the loop regarding any changes you are making for PHI security, as they are the ones who handle sensitive information. You can provide training as well regarding updated policies – HIPAAReady can help with that effortlessly.

Remote access should be secured at all times

This one is common but is still worth mentioning. Since telehealth is growing tremendously, many physicians will be required to access their workstations remotely. Enforce the usage of VPNs at all times – it is the ultimate red herring for hackers as it keeps the connection anonymous and secure.

Conduct risk assessments 

This will help ensure HIPAA compliance by investigating and addressing gaps in your security system. Not doing so will result in HIPAA violations as the risks may well jeopardize PHI security. Have contingency plans in place as well – HIPAA breaches are inevitable; while you might not be able to avoid it, you can at least ensure that the data is unusable by hackers. Thus, ensure that you are safeguarding PHI by addressing and reducing internal issues via risk assessments.

Use HIPAA compliance software

PHI is very closely related to HIPAA compliance – if you are ensuring the latter, it means that you are effectively protecting the former. However, anyone who is working in healthcare or with PHI knows that HIPAA compliance is an arduous task. It is not a procedure you need to comply with periodically – HIPAA compliance is a continuous process. One wrong move and it will lead to violations and hefty fines.

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Instead of going for solutions that give you a “HIPAA certified” or “HIPAA compliant” badge, go for the one which understands HIPAA and helps you simplify compliance effectively. HIPAAReady is a robust HIPAA compliance software that reduces your administrative burden. With it, you can conduct internal audits to detect and address security gaps, ensure training management, and keep everyone on the same page – it keeps the information in a centralized location so that you do not need to search for documents frantically at the last minute. Prepare for audits more effectively and simplify HIPAA compliance management with HIPAAReady – ensuring PHI security and avoiding hefty fines. 

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