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2/13/2012
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Health Data Breaches Up 97% in 2011

Redspin report calls for tougher HIPAA standards, regular security audits, and more employee education.

Health Data Security: Tips And Tools
Health Data Security: Tips And Tools
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Last year saw an unprecedented level of data breaches carried out by hackers and other unauthorized individuals who either stole or unlawfully snooped into the private health records of patients. According to recently released research from Redspin Inc., in 2011 breaches of protected health information (PHI) increased 97% over 2010. The numbers also show that 19 million patients' health records were affected, and 59% of all breaches involved a business associate.

Redspin's 2011 PHI Breach Analysis, relied on information from the Department of Health and Human Services' documents of health data breaches recorded between October 2009 and November 2011. The analysis showed that of 385 breaches of protected health information during this period, 39% occurred on a laptop or other portable device, 25% occurred on a desktop PC or server, and 60% resulted from malicious intent such as theft or hacking.

"It makes logical sense that as more protected health information is digitized, it becomes structured data maintained in databases and is easier to access and transfer to a laptop or portal storage device, which then gets lost or stolen," Redspin's president and CEO Daniel Berger told InformationWeek Healthcare. "Now you can have one million patient records stolen in one incident as opposed to someone walking out the door with a file folder of 30 patient records."

[Learn about the latest in e-prescribing tools at 6 E-Prescribing Vendors To Watch.]

In addition to HHS' documents, Redspin also relied on its own experience conducting IT risk assessments at hospitals and other medical facilities to come up with its conclusions and recommendations.

The study noted that as the adoption of electronic health records continues and more technology such as tablets are used in healthcare, health IT executives have been unable to develop policies that can effectively prevent the increased risk of data breaches. "The proliferation of portable devices and media within all IT environments that store PHI increase the likelihood of breach geometrically. Few healthcare employees could tell you what corporate IT security policies are in place; it is even rarer to find security awareness training programs," the report states.

Among the report's recommendations:

-- The federal government should update the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Security Rule so that healthcare providers have more relevant and practical guidance.

-- Healthcare providers should conduct a HIPAA security risk analysis on an annual or, at the least, bi-annual basis and put a plan in place to address any vulnerabilities found.

-- Hospitals should conduct a specific "portfolio" risk analysis as it relates to the dozens or even hundreds of vendors, contractors, and consultants they work with. By taking a risk-adjusted approach, hospitals can focus on the subset of business associates that present a high risk of potential damage from data breaches. Ultimately, the hospital has every right to insist that their partners conduct regular third-party security assessments as a requirement of doing business together.

-- Healthcare providers should make their employees more security-conscious.

"We believe strongly that if security is not made a top priority the health security trust model could fail. We think it's time for another round of federal regulations to take things a step further and say that all PHI should be encrypted if it's on portable devices," Berger said. "The importance of the adoption of electronic health records is so critical to the industry that it's time for the regulations to be more prescriptive."

Healthcare providers must collect all sorts of performance data to meet emerging standards. The new Pay For Performance issue of InformationWeek Healthcare delves into the huge task ahead. Also in this issue: Why personal health records have flopped. (Free registration required.)

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