Six Tips to Improve Patient Data Security for Healthcare Practices

Data breaches continue to target the healthcare sector, with a distressing number of patient records breached every year. These breaches not only compromise patient trust in their providers, but they also have costly consequences. According to a report, the average cost of a healthcare data breach in the US is $15 million.

Still thinking, why is data security important in healthcare? Look at these stats:

  • Nearly32 million patient records were breached in the first half of 2019. (Source)
  • Patient data breaches cost the healthcare sector nearly $6.5 million every year, which is 60% more than other sectors. (Source)
  • Almost 82% of healthcare practices agree that data security is their biggest concern. (Source)

Though no organization is immune to a data breach, smaller healthcare practices are easier targets. They have the same valuable patient data but lack the expertise or sophisticated systems to protect their data. The kind of data that most medical practices collect from patients – name, address, social security number, date of birth, driver’s license, and insurance information- is everything a cybercriminal needs to commit identity theft, tax fraud, and other financial crimes.

However, regardless of the size of your practice or the amount of patient information, there could be someone out there trying to hack into your servers and steal your data. The skyrocketing number of breaches proves that the healthcare sector needs to modify its approach towards data security and learn to think like hackers.

Tips to Improve Data Security at Your Healthcare Practice

Although cybercriminals frequently target individual healthcare practices, employing best practices can help protect patient data. Here are the top tips from experts:

  1. Perform a security risk assessment
    Understand how your healthcare practice is currently protecting patient information. How often do you perform data backups? Is there an access termination procedure when an employee leaves your practice? Do employees have different levels of access to patient information? Are portable devices encrypted? The next step is to gather information about your hardware, software, and existing policies regarding patient information handling. This analysis should conclude with an assessment of how likely a breach is to occur and what could happen in case the violation occurs.
  2. Train employees on data security protocols
    As reported in the HIPAA Journal, 53% of data breaches are the result of employee negligence or errors. This makes it essential to ensure that employees understand the risks to patient information and the threat of breaches. The data security training should focus on employee education, including what does and doesn’t constitute a HIPAA violation, ways to avoid phishing, social engineering, and other attacks that target employees and advice on using secure passwords on all word-related applications. If possible, training should also cover the dangers of hacking, posting patient information on social networks, and other causes of breaches. 
  3. Establish security guidelines for external devices
    With an increasing number of healthcare employees bringing their personal mobile devices to work, patient data has become more vulnerable. To reduce the odds of a data breach, have your IT staff assess every device that will access the data. It is also essential that every healthcare practice create a mobile device security policy that governs the nature of information that can be stored on personal devices and what kind of apps can be installed. You can provide employees with a list of apps that will help protect their devices from malware and other intrusions. Finally, it’s essential to make sure every employee is aware of the personal device security policy and is informed whenever there are changes or updates.
  4. Assign role-based access to data
    Controlling access to patient information is another effective way of improving the overall data security. As a rule of thumb, access to sensitive patient data should be provided either need-based or role-based. Implementing restricted access requires user authentication, which ensures that only authorized users can gain access to protected patient data. Another effective strategy is multi-factor authentication, which requires users to verify their identities through two or more methods, such as password and thumb scanning. By diversifying access, you will make it more difficult for hackers to crack code and breach your data.
  5. Encrypt sensitive data
    Encryption is one of the most effective information protection strategies for healthcare practices. Make sure every bit of sensitive data is encrypted on all devices, including laptops, desktops, mobile phones, and tablets. By encrypting data, you will make it nearly impossible for hackers to decipher information even if they manage to gain access to the data.
  6. Build a security-first culture
    Even the best tools and the most comprehensive policies cannot protect your data if your employees don’t follow the guidelines. Ensuring that data security guidelines are followed throughout your practice is a process, and it will take planning, time, and effort to make it happen. To ensure that every employee follows security guidelines, make sure senior management is on board. A top-down approach will help overcome reluctance at lower levels.

    Taking an all-embracing approach to patient data security may seem exhausting, but when sensitive data is at risk, following the above-mentioned best practices can ensure greater protection. For healthcare practices that are planning to take data protection seriously, HIPAA and other regulatory compliance initiatives are a good starting point for building a data security program. However, focus your efforts beyond compliance to ensure that patient data is safe and protected.

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