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August 3, 2022

Data Privacy Solutions for the Healthcare Industry

Gaps in data privacy regulation and a lack of trust in existing systems plague the healthcare industry. 80% of patients surveyed say they will not return to the same provider after an experience that caused them to lose trust. Providers must rebuild trust in healthcare, and data privacy is an important place to start.

Legislators continue to work on mandates enforcing the privacy of protected health information (PHI). At the same time, new legislation forces organizations to make health information available and portable, giving patients greater access to their electronic data. These competing ideas create a compliance minefield for organizations to navigate.

Healthcare organizations manage large, complex data sets. It’s already a challenge to maintain mountains of information, and the need to make information available complicates things further. Patients must be able to access their own health information with ease, but the unauthorized parties absolutely must be denied access. Portability can’t come at the expense of data privacy.

Data Privacy Issues in the Healthcare Industry

As the size of data grows, so does the median size of data breaches, reports the HIPAA Journal. Since 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has received more than 4,400 reports of significant breaches—and that only counts sizable breaches where 500 or more records were compromised.

Overall, the number of lost, stolen, or improperly exposed healthcare records is greater than 314 million, reports the HIPAA Journal. To get a grasp of the scale of this problem, consider that the entire population of the United States is roughly 330 million people.

The HIPAA Journal also reports more frequent hacking and related IT incidents, a 9.4X increase from 2015 to 2021. To keep pace with the sharp uptick in incidents, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has to pass down more penalties. The reported volume of OCR Penalties for HIPAA enforcement jumped 600% between 2010 and 2020.

Offending healthcare organizations pay fines, settlements, and civil monetary penalties (CMPs). The total cost of such payments has exceeded $10s of millions. Healthcare breaches are dramatically more common and more costly.

Fortunately, healthcare IT professionals can implement data privacy solutions to mitigate or eliminate risks. This is the way to protect patient information at scale.

Key HIPAA Rules for Healthcare Privacy

There are two key HIPAA rules to consider for healthcare privacy:

  1. The HIPAA Privacy Rule (45 CFR §164.530) protects PHI and medical records by limiting unauthorized use and disclosure. Patients must be able to inspect their records and make changes to their files.
  2. The HIPAA Security Rule (45 CFR §164.308) defines standards, methods, and procedures to protect PHI. These standards relate to data storage, accessibility, and transmission.

These rules begin to address common data privacy challenges in the healthcare industry. HIPAA’s rules for healthcare data privacy exist to protect patients, but they also put organizations between a rock and a hard place.

For example, hospitals can’t eliminate information or print it for storage in a secure facility – doing so would deprive patients of convenient access to their health data. On the other hand, the information can’t be too accessible to the point where unauthorized parties gain access. Organizations have to protect the privacy of data from some parties while removing all barriers to access for the appropriate patients.

Beyond HIPAA: Patient Consent and Evolving Policies

HIPAA rules like the two above are the bare minimum for data privacy in the healthcare industry. HIPAA preempts and overrides less protective privacy laws. It does not, however, affect laws that protect privacy more thoroughly. That is, healthcare providers may also be held accountable to other standards even beyond HIPAA.

Federal and state laws may impose additional requirements on healthcare organizations. For example, they may regulate the ways patients consent to information disclosure. Evolving legal factors play a big part in the way healthcare IT professionals practice data privacy. Different organizations face unique challenges, but there are several common themes.

Common Healthcare Data Privacy Challenges

Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) present healthcare data security challenges. Patients must get easy access to their information, but the same information must be inaccessible to unauthorized parties. The IT infrastructure must be simple enough to be efficient, and advanced enough to repel sophisticated threats.

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act adds complexity. HITECH has since been folded into HIPAA. The legislation encourages transparent sharing of medical information across numerous providers. The high portability of information allows patients to receive care from any number of providers. Unfortunately, it also creates a colossal attack surface.

Healthcare Data Privacy Solutions

IT professionals ensure healthcare data privacy by implementing the appropriate privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs). Healthcare PETs offer multiple ways to maintain privacy.

  • Data discovery
  • Data access control
  • Database activity monitoring
  • EHR data masking

Healthcare organizations can use these techniques in concert. Comprehensive data privacy plans protect patients and maintain compliance.

Data Discovery

Sensitive information can’t be encrypted or masked until someone knows where it is. Data discovery solutions uncover sensitive information in obscure locations throughout an organization. The most complete technologies account for structured data, unstructured data, big data, and the cloud.

Authentication, Access Control, and Activity Monitoring

Restricting access to authorized users is at the core of data privacy. Healthcare IT professionals typically use access rights automation and database activity monitoring. Responding to Right to Access and Right to Erasure requests is faster after automating data subject access rights. Database activity monitoring provides audit-ready reporting at all times.

Data Masking in Healthcare

Data must be secure in all states for EHR data masking to work. That is, data masking solutions must protect data at rest, in transit, and in use.

Static data masking techniques protect data in pre-production and non-production environments. Such techniques include encryption and tokenization. Dynamic data masking techniques provide control of sensitive data in production environments. This is critical when protecting PII, PHI, and other sensitive data in the most vulnerable states: in-transit and in-use.

Patented Vs. Open-Source Data Masking in Healthcare

There are open-source data masking solutions. Unfortunately, native and open-source anonymization solutions have three limitations:

  1. Scalability across databases
  2. Flexibility of anonymization methods
  3. Analytics access to achieve valuable insights without sacrificing privacy

It isn’t always enough to tick individual boxes on a data privacy checklist. Patented solutions take the more holistic, comprehensive approach to healthcare data privacy.

Healthcare Data Privacy: The Big Picture

Healthcare information systems use various PETs to meet their unique needs. Data must be kept private while retaining its utility for all relevant processes. Working across multiple database platforms requires portability and flexibility, but also consistency.

Healthcare data privacy solutions must be highly scalable and maintainable. The data landscape continues to sprawl and data volume is constantly growing. Outsourcing privacy-enhancing technologies is the fastest way to implement effective healthcare cybersecurity measures.

Choosing Privacy-Enhancing Technologies for the Healthcare Industry

Privacy-enhancing technologies help healthcare organizations achieve optimal data privacy without forsaking utility. The first step is discovering all sensitive information. From there, cybersecurity implementers can use encryption, tokenization, and masking to secure data. Consistent scanning brings threats to light immediately, and associated reporting demonstrates compliance. Schedule a demo with MAGE to see how our tools can ensure the privacy and security of your healthcare data.

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