Best practices for protecting patient information

Beau Peters · June 16, 2021 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/527c
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Patient data is vital to operations and a valuable resource, making it attractive to cybercriminals

We live in an increasingly data-rich society. In many ways, this can be a very useful thing for the medical industry. It allows professionals, whether in clinical, insurance, or administrative roles, to gain deeper insights that can benefit the lives of patients. Not to mention that it supports practices that improve productivity, accuracy, and efficiency.  

Yet, this reliance on electronically stored and shared information brings significant risks, not the least of which is it makes the healthcare industry a target for cybercrime. One recent study found that data breaches in medical sectors have affected around 26% of all Americans. As such, to keep reaping the benefits of data, leaders, influencers, and staff in the field need to adopt strategies that protect patients.  

This isn’t always easy, of course. But there are some best practices that you can start employing today that can make a significant difference in your data security, whatever aspect of the industry you operate within. Let’s take a look at some of them. 

Conscious collection

There is no denying that the healthcare industry is benefiting from data. In many ways, data analytics is seen as an essential aspect of the care landscape, being leveraged by doctors, pharmaceutical providers, and insurers alike to help make decisions in a more cost-conscious manner. The most relevant and actionable analyses are made with the highest quality of data, leading to a growing tendency in the industry to gather as much information from patients as possible. Unfortunately, the more data you collect, the bigger a target you might be to cybercriminals.    

Therefore, it is important to take a considerate approach to your data gathering. Take care to understand what actually needs to be collected about a patient that is helpful. Arbitrarily capturing all the information you can about a patient during a single appointment is not only an overreach but irresponsible. Seek to be more intentional with your data collection. Create protocols in your practice that mean staff needs to justify why they are collecting certain data and what specifically it will be used for.

This also applies to making decisions about how and when information is collected and whether it is stored together. It has become common practice for medical businesses to strip patient information of personal details and sell it to data mining companies. However, while identification codes in place of patient names and social security numbers might make it seem as though patients are protected, it is becoming easier for bad actors to identify people through their anonymous data. The best practice here is obviously for medical professionals not to sell on patient data, but that’s not always possible. However, patients should be educated on their power to veto the use of their data in these circumstances. Also, staff being conscious of what information is provided to various parts of medical businesses, and restricting access unless medically necessary can at least minimize the scope for breaches.   

Secure software

Among the most basic yet vital of best practices to protect patient information is vigilance about the software systems you use. There are already compliance requirements in place under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) that cover how data is managed within electronic systems. All software that your facility uses to interact with patients’ personal or medical information must at the very least ensure the confidentiality and integrity of the records, identify and protect against reasonably anticipated threats, and protect against improper disclosure of data. 

However, you must go further than the minimum requirements of HIPAA. After all, this is very generalized legislation and doesn’t always take into account the developing nature of cybersecurity threats in technology. If, like many medical fields, you are adopting telehealth software for remote appointments, do your research into the level of live encryption that is provided by potential platforms. The same goes for any new technology that you, or indeed your partners if you are one of the many surgeries that outsource medical billing, plan to use now and in the future. 

One of the main security mistakes you can make with software is assuming that you can engage with it after doing some initial research, and it will continue to be safe. There is no such thing as permanent security in software. Criminals are creative and persistent. Ensure that your information technology (IT) department regularly sources and installs security updates for the applications you use. It can also be wise to occasionally use a cybersecurity consultant to audit your tools and processes to identify where there may be vulnerabilities in your systems and help you to address them accordingly. 

Staff behavior

It’s important to be cognizant of what makes healthcare such an attractive target for cybercriminals. Part of this is certainly that the type of data being collected, financial, medical, and personal, is especially valuable. However, a primary factor is the tendency for healthcare facilities to have poor security in place. In most cases, these security vulnerabilities don’t come from software or hardware but from the behavior of staff.  

The majority of the time this isn’t staff maliciously allowing data breaches. Rather, unless there is a focus on the importance of safe practices, it can be easy to let bad habits creep in — especially as breaching techniques and threats can change so frequently. This can be mitigated by engaging all staff in regular cybersecurity training and refresher sessions. Make it not just technical but also relevant to how they go about their daily activities so that they do not just understand the threat but how it impacts their work and the lives of patients.

There should also be clear standards for device use. There is a tendency at the moment for facilities to operate bring-your-own-device policies. This is understandable, as — aside from specialist telematics or informatics equipment — these devices are similar to those used professionally. However, outside devices can present additional vulnerabilities, even if these are just personal smartphones. Apply vigilance here, and communicate acceptable standards. 

Conclusion

Patient information is vital to operations and a valuable resource, which makes it all the more attractive to cybercriminals. As such you need to focus on implementing best practices in data collection, software platform use, and how staff interacts with technology. With small, regular efforts you can mitigate the potential for breaches.

(Image source: pexels.com)

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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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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.