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5/19/2010
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Healthcare Data Risk Greatest From Human Error

Despite advances in security technology and regulations, human mistakes will likely continue to cause data security breaches that jeopardize patient privacy.

Human foibles will likely continue to cause data security breaches despite advances in the security technology until users fully understand the risks involved with their behavior, said healthcare CIOs at during an e-health panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. on Wednesdays.

While advancements in security technology better protects patient data, and regulations like HIPAA aim to set rules for information security and privacy, some breaches boil down to humans making mistakes.

"Everything in our environment is encrypted," said William Fandrich, senior VP and CIO at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

However, despite solid attempts at security protection and other precautions, healthcare organizations need to emphasize--and continue to remind--employees about simple things they need to do to prevent patient privacy breaches. That includes taking care or portable or thumbnail storage devices, securing laptop computers and other obvious but simple ways of securing patient data.

Laptop encryption "sounds easy, but it's not" when getting cooperation of users, said Susan Schade, CIO at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

On audience member relayed a story about a neighbor's daughter temping in a local, small doctor office, and how the daughter apparently snooped through patients' e-medical records. CIOs on the panel were unanimous that workers who snoop at patient records should be fired, and even the smallest doctor offices need to pay attention to e-health record tracking, auditing and access control features of their software.

Yet despite consumers' fears about their digital health data being violated, paper files continue to be even more vulnerable to breaches whether it's "fax machines shooting out" patient files, said Fandrich, or paper records being left in the open.

A recent incident involving Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island involved the breach of records for 12,000 patients. However, those records were paper documents that were erroneously left in a file cabinet that was being donated along with other office furniture.

Security has in improved vastly in recent years at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said CIO Julie Boughn. CMS hired its first "ethical hackers" in 2000 and over the last decade security is "vastly better and getting better," thought improvements can still be made, she said.

For healthcare IT adoption to be successful--helping to improve quality of care and reduce costs--patients have an important role in willing to allowing their data to be exchanged among healthcare providers, such as between their primary care doctors and specialists. However, that means patients have to trust that their data is also being protected.

Trust is also a big part of data exchange among healthcare providers, not only in protecting patient's privacy but also in hospitals having access to another provider's data, "seeing the data and making decisions based on it," said Boughn. "You've got to trust what you're seeing" in terms of accuracy, she said.

What will hamper the adoption of health IT and its embrace by patients and healthcare providers?

"A big breach will set us back," said Boughn, such as an incident that happened several years ago at the VA when a laptop computer containing personal information about 26 million veterans and military personnel was stolen.

"A lot comes down to communication. People understanding what they need to do and how to protect information," Schade said.

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