As information technology pervades every aspect of healthcare, complying with federal regulations on patient privacy and security is becoming an even bigger issue.
More often than not, it's human error and process mistakes--not the technology itself--that have caused the biggest HIPAA violations. Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services began listing health data breaches affecting 500 or more individuals on www.hhs.gov. As of late August, 306 HIPAA violations were listed on HHS's "Hall of Shame" site, most of them involving stolen or lost computers, USB drives, or documents, not hacking or snooping.
In one of the largest penalties so far since the revised HIPAA rules were signed into law under the HITECH Act in 2009, Massachusetts General Hospital in February was fined $1 million to settle what HHS called "potential HIPAA violations" related to the loss of paper documents listing names, appointments, and other information for 192 patients of Mass General's infectious disease outpatient practice. A Mass General employee commuting to work left the documents on a train.
According to HHS, the government's investigation of the incident indicated that Mass General "failed to implement reasonable, appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of PHI when removed from Mass General's premises and impermissibly disclosed PHI potentially violating provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule."
How IT Departments Are Coping
The revised HIPAA regulations have forced IT organizations to put more emphasis on data in transit, says Mony Weschler, director of ancillary informatics at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. When it comes to electronic communications with patients, "it's not just as simple as cutting a report and emailing it. You can't do that," Weschler says. Rather, healthcare providers need to set up secure passwords and IDs, and then provide patients with links to patient portals to pull reports up, he says.
Securing patient data on mobile devices--which are at the center of many of the data breaches reported on the HHS site--isn't an issue for Montifiore. "We don't store patient data on devices like smartphones and iPads."
Unfortunately, securing doctor-patient communication isn't the only HIPAA issue keeping IT managers up at night. Any data exchanged among clinicians also has to be secure.
Dell, through its Perot services unit, offers products and services to address those needs. Its cloud-based services, for instance, can encrypt medical images "three ways, before, during, and after" transmission, says Dave Marchand, Dell's health and life sciences CTO.
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