HIPAA compliance in a big data world

Beau Peters · July 22, 2020 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/508e

How do medical professionals keep patient data safe and private?

Like never before, our data is tracked and communicated to a variety of systems through our mobile devices and wearable technologies that have exploded in popularity over recent years. These innovations are extremely useful. Sometimes, the collected data can even help medical professionals diagnose and treat medical conditions.

However, these benefits do not come without their own set of challenges. In a world where data collection is so simple and prevalent, privacy concerns come into question. With wearable tech and telehealth quickly becoming the future of healthcare, how do medical professionals keep patient data safe and private?

Big data is the present and future of the healthcare industry, but care professionals must manage this data while adhering to protections mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

Here, we’ll look into the ways new technology has changed patient data gathering and examine how to manage the security and privacy of that data according to HIPAA standards.

Big data and healthcare advancements 

Big data is transforming a wide variety of industries, but healthcare stands out as one of the most significant fields in which widely collected information means progress. With the developments now utilized by many care facilities around the world, electronic health records (EHRs), telemedicine, and wearable technologies all serve to better care.

By 2018, in the United States, 94% of hospitals had reportedly already adopted an EHR system to record and track patient data. These digital systems allow for a broader picture of healthcare solutions as well as easier patient transportation and access to data. However, this functionality and improvement in care solutions come at a cost: healthcare data is more vulnerable than ever.

This vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with the advancements that make healthcare solutions simpler and easier. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables smart devices like ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, glucose monitors, and even patient beds to communicate data on a connected network that can help keep patients safe with up-to-date health tracking and reporting. 

Additionally, the massive increase in the accumulation and accessibility of data on a wide scale is fundamental in care professionals being able to study and treat illness. More data means better diagnoses, making possible solutions like telemedicine that allow physicians to prescribe and treat patients remotely. This is vital in providing care to rural areas and maintaining patient safety in a post-coronavirus world.  

Advancements enabled by big data improve patient outcomes. Across the industry, hospitals, nursing homes, and insurance companies are using big data to better understand and serve those in need of care. Big data is the future if a concerning one. 

The concerns

The problem with healthcare data becoming more and more accessible via cloud computing and networking is that patient data is a valuable target for cybercriminals. As data breaches become increasingly common across industries, few stand to lose as much as the healthcare sector. 

Data breaches on average cost the healthcare sector $6.5 million, or $429 per patient record. Since medical data can be worth as much as 50 times the value of stolen credit card data on the black market, cybercriminals are drawn to it like flies to a barbecue. This has led to massive financial losses in the healthcare industry, as corporations and patients deal with the effects of cyberattacks.

With IoT and big data increasingly integrated into the medical field, patient data becomes more and more vulnerable. These financial concerns are stacked atop the risks healthcare providers run of not meeting HIPAA standard security for their data, as that data is made more and more vulnerable just as quality improves.

Securing HIPAA compliance in a big data world

The goal of HIPAA, which passed in 1996, was to secure patient data for a new world of EHRs. This legislation requires that all information that is transmitted or maintained in electronic form be protected through a strict set of procedures. Per the Department of Health and Human Services, administrators must:

  1. Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all records.
  2. Identify and protect against reasonably anticipated threats to the security or integrity of health data.
  3. Protect against improper disclosure of data.
  4. Ensure compliance by the workforce.

In a big data world, this second rule may be the most complicated to follow. With the continued innovation and persistence of cybercriminals, what is considered a “reasonably” anticipated threat? And how are care facilities protecting themselves against them?

Since no organization can guarantee against the occurrence of a data breach, there are three key qualifiers that make up HIPAA compliant protection strategies for any security threat within reason. These are the de-identification of data for big data analytics, the creation of technical safeguards, and the training of employees in data protection.

De-identification for big data analytics

Advancements in healthcare solutions are reliant on the accumulation of big data for analysis and study. However, to secure HIPAA compliance, individual patient data must go through a process of de-identification before it can be used in such a manner. 

This means that identifying data (data that can be used to place and name a specific patient) has to be removed from the overall data record to ensure patient anonymity. Names, addresses, social security numbers, and contact information are all procedurally redacted from other useful data to keep private information private.  

This process is not without risk, however, as cyber attackers can still sometimes combine various data sets to recreate patient identity. But for the purposes of HIPAA compliance, measures to carefully conceal patient identity through de-identification are enough reasonable consideration.

Technical safeguards

HIPAA also requires that technical safeguards are in place to protect EHRs. These include controls for access, auditing, and integrity, as well as broader transmission security. 

  • Access controls keep the accessibility of data limited only to those with authorized credentials. Various security tools exist to achieve this level of security, like two-factor identification, pin numbers, and fingerprint scanning. 
  • Audit controls ensure that a record is kept of access and activity across confidential databases to track use both authorized and unauthorized. In the event of a breach or improperly disclosed information, professionals can use audit controls to find the source of the misuse. 
  • Integrity controls protect against the tampering of data through a strict system of authorization and version control. This gives administrators the protective tools needed to verify that data is kept intact and understand exactly where an issue has occurred.

Finally, any network that transmits confidential patient data must protect that network against unauthorized access to remain HIPAA compliant. This means firewall systems and technical security that prevent cyberattacks and intrusion to the best of the organization’s ability. 

Employee training in data protection

Maintaining HIPAA compliance requires a workforce trained in data protection over an electronic network. Some of the protective measures are seemingly common sense, but less technologically-minded workers may have trouble understanding the importance of simple guidelines in maintaining the HIPAA compliant status of data in a digital world. 

Here are some tips for keeping data secure that all healthcare workers should understand:

  • Keep user login credentials secure.
  • Create complex passwords and change them often.
  • Do not share login or private information. 
  • Login only from authorized devices and secured networks. 
  • Do not open emails or links from unknown and unverified sources. 
  • Understand what phishing is and looks like.

While medical data is impossible to protect from every cyber attack that might occur, HIPAA standards can be maintained even in an increasingly digital world where big data and IoT devices are everywhere.

HIPAA compliance starts with effectively de-identifying data for analysis, implementing technical safeguards, and training employees in data protection. Care facility administrators who use these processes as a starting point and frequently reassess and upgrade their security systems will meet HIPAA compliance requirements while protecting vulnerable patient data. 

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Beau Peters

Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he's learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication.

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