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9/20/2012
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Medical Data Breach Highlights Need For Encryption

Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary could have avoided a $1.5 million fine with an adequate risk analysis and relatively inexpensive encryption measures, say IT experts.

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The recent data breach at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Associates once again screams the message: Encryption, encryption, encryption!

The provider has agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), after allegations were made that Mass. Eye and Ear failed to comply with certain requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards that govern the security of individually identifiable health information.

Mass. Eye and Ear declined to comment on the breach other than to release a statement that mentioned the hospital's proactive self-reporting of a doctor's unencrypted laptop being stolen while he was traveling abroad in 2010. The statement went on to say: "Given the lack of patient harm discovered in this investigation, Mass. Eye and Ear was disappointed with the size of the fine, especially since the independent specialty hospital's annual revenue is very small compared to other much larger institutions that have received smaller fines."

[ For another point of view on PHRs, see Why Personal Health Records Have Flopped. ]

HHS' Office for Civil Rights released a resolution agreement for the incident. During an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare, Mahmood Sher-Jan, vice president of product management at data breach response specialist ID Experts, said the incident was "a clear pattern of disregard" on behalf of MEEI, as well as a failure to comply with "a number of key elements of the HIPAA security rule."

"…In one of the first items [in the agreement], they mention the issue is more than portable devices," Sher-Jan said. "They concluded the entity didn't perform a risk analysis on an ongoing basis, and this goes all the way back to when the security rule was put into place back in 2005. Consequently, I think portable devices were impacted… [T]hey didn't have good policies and procedures around their own home devices, but also portable devices coming in and out that weren't owned by the entity…."

Chad Boeckmann, president at security program company Secure Digital Solutions, agreed with Sher-Jan and said in an interview that failure to conduct a risk analysis was "the big thing that was highlighted" in the agreement. "For quite some time, they weren't maintaining these requirements or being proactive. It's about maintaining due diligence," he said.

Boeckmann added the organization could have invested in encryption technology, which most likely would have cost them a "tenth of the cost of their fine." The technology would have helped MEEI meet HITECH requirements, he said, "as well as [help with] an organizational assessment to see their compliance with HIPAA and HITECH requirements, and manage the remediation to that degree."

InformationWeek Healthcare brought together eight top IT execs to discuss BYOD, Meaningful Use, accountable care, and other contentious issues. Also in the new, all-digital CIO Roundtable issue: Why use IT systems to help cut medical costs if physicians ignore the cost of the care they provide? (Free with registration.)

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jaysimmons
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jaysimmons,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/23/2012 | 2:17:47 AM
re: Medical Data Breach Highlights Need For Encryption
Why people continue to keep patient data on unencrypted machines is beyond me. I assume that we just need more education around how easily this can happen and better policies within organizations to help mitigate the risk. It seems like such an easy solution to such an epidemic problem.
Jay Simmons
Information Week Contributor
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