Tech leaders warn policymakers that even as more electronic health records flood health IT systems, more encryption is needed.
Healthcare and IT experts convened on Capitol Hill last week to warn Congress that as healthcare organizations are increasing the use of electronic health records in light of federal mandates, they are not protecting these records within the database and elsewhere. Security professionals agree that in order for the public to trust these records, healthcare organizations need to start working on database security best practices--the same first-order practices that any organization with minimal security should start with to shore up sensitive data stores.
"Simply stated, the effort to promote widespread adoption and use of health IT to improve individual and population health will fail if the public does not trust it," said Deven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project for the Center for Democracy, in testimony to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law (PDF), Nov. 9.
According to McGraw, even with certain safe harbor incentives in place for organizations to be exempt from costly breach notifications if exposed data is encrypted, statistics show that healthcare organizations are still not encrypting their data.
"The new breach notification provisions of HITECH provide an incentive for healthcare providers to encrypt health information using standards approved by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)," he said. "But we know from the statistics on breaches that have occurred since the notification provisions went into effect in 2009 that the healthcare industry appears to be rarely encrypting data."
Todd Thiemann, senior director of product marketing at encryption vendor Vormetric, said his experiences corroborate what McGraw's seen.
"From what we've seen, you have a lot of data out there that government programs are tempting healthcare organizations to turn into electronic records from paper records, and a lot of institutions are still grappling with how to secure that stuff," he says. "The push for electronic medical records is this new wave crashing on the shore that they're dealing with."
As McGraw explained in his testimony, there has been no comprehensive study of why healthcare hasn't embraced encryption, but Thiemann has his hunches.
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