The Role of IT in HIPAA Compliance 

The medical field has evolved in the past few decades not only in treatments but in protecting patient privacy and sensitive information. Gone are the days of patient information being kept in physical folders or within the confines of a singular medical office. Communication and collaboration with medical professionals nationally and globally have become the norm. Once in-person appointments have now morphed into visits via telehealth and through patient portals.  In today’s healthcare industry, texting between healthcare professionals, communications via patient portals, and patient visits through telehealth apps are commonplace. Each of these new forms of technology has rapidly evolved making compliance for healthcare facilities and professionals even more complicated.  Let’s take a look at what the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, (HIPAA) is, the potential compliance risks, the benchmarks of a good HIPAA IT plan and the role that IT plays in maintaining compliance. 

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What Is HIPAA? 

In short, HIPAA is a federal act that enforces specific laws and regulations to safeguard the privacy and security of patient data, also known as protected health information or PHI. These rules protect not only the patient but businesses and providers as well. This federal act must be followed by healthcare facilities, healthcare workers, health insurance companies, and any company or worker that may see medical records because of their job. This could include medical billing or technical companies.  These laws were enacted to modernize the flow of medical information to match the changing technology, stipulate how personally identifiable information (PII) should be protected and address the legal and financial penalties of not securing patient information in transit, during storage, or in administrative and physical manners. 

Who Needs To Worry About HIPAA Compliance? 

In an ideal world, we should all be worried about the protection of patient information as we are all patients at some point in our lives. The reality however is that two main groups need to be vigilant and maintain safeguards against lost or stolen data. These include Covered Entities and Business Associates.  Covered Entities are those directly involved in providing or administrating healthcare services. They include medical practitioners such as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes. They also include health plans and insurance such as HMOs, PPOs, and Medicare and Medicaid as well as clearinghouses that transmit and house Personal Health Information (PHI).  Business Associates are third-party service providers who access PHI while performing services on behalf of covered entities. These would include billing companies, vendors, IT companies, consultants and auditors.  On a side note, patients should also have a basic understanding of the meaning of HIPAA in order to advocate for their rights and be alert to insecure practices. 


What Are the Violations of Non-Compliance to HIPAA? 

A HIPAA violation is any practice or action that does not comply with HIPAA regulations. The Enforcement Rule in HIPAA outlines the penalties organizations will be subject to for HIPAA violations including financial and legal penalties. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR), a person who knowingly obtains or discloses individually identifiable health information in violation of the Privacy Rule may face a criminal penalty of up to $50,000 and up to one year imprisonment. Some of the most common HIPAA violations that have resulted in financial penalties include IT security violations such as insufficient ePHI Access Controls, failure to use encryption or an equivalent measure to safeguard ePHI on portable devices, failure to manage security risks and failure to perform organization-wide risk analysis.

Top Risks To HIPAA Compliance

Some of the most common risks associated with being out of compliance include IT failures such as ransomware, phishing scams, software security vulnerabilities, access control failures, migration errors, and, of course, human errors. Each of these circumstances can be proactively prevented through best practices and following a strict security posture. 

Benchmarks of a Good HIPAA IT Plan

Keeping up with the changing landscape of IT and HIPAA can be a challenge, especially given the drastic shift the world took three years ago with the onset of COVID-19 and the need to adapt to telehealth, new HIPAA regulations and a “remote” world.  Since organizations within the guidelines of HIPAA must provide physical, administrative, and technical safeguards, it is important that they follow certain guidelines to meet the benchmarks of a good HIPAA IT plan. Here are a few of these markers that your organization should work on to ensure adequate regulatory compliance. 

Train All Staff & Team Members 

From the highest level of leadership down to each vendor in an ecosystem that is regulated by HIPAA, the entire staff should be trained on compliance regulations. For instance, HIPAA compliance training should be a company-wide event to discuss the specifics of access controls, workstation safety such as automatic log-offs, device and media controls, and what to do in case a breach does occur. 

Use HIPAA Security Strategies 

A strategy such as using encryption can be a huge defense against a breach because if a breach of PHI occurs, any data that is acquired will be unreadable, undecipherable and unusable.  Monitoring users can help determine if agreed-upon strategies are being complied with including administrative safeguards. For example, authorized users are required to use secure messaging policies when dealing with electronic data. Are these policies being followed appropriately?  Yet another security strategy to ensure all team members are using the automatic log-off component of some apps such as Skype, Gmail, and text messaging apps. These components mean that another user will not be able to physically access the data should they sit at your workstation or log in on your device.  User authentication is critical in the overall security strategy as all users accessing PHI must have unique identification credentials to allow system traceability. This includes username and password combinations along with multi-factor authentication options like secondary codes or biometrics. Your IT department or Managed Service Provider should have a strategy and a plan to meet the requirements of HIPAA whenever technology is involved. Whether the task is providing administrative, technical or physical safeguards, your IT professionals should have a mastery of the security practices and procedures that will keep your organization safe from a HIPAA violation. Talk to our team at Spectra Networks about our experience and expertise in HIPAA-related security for our healthcare clients.