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11/9/2010
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Study: Patient Data Security Not A Main Concern For Most Healthcare Providers

New Ponemon Institute survey finds breaches costing healthcare $6 billion a year, but security still not top concern

The healthcare industry is now suffering breaches to the tune of $6 billion per year, yet 70 percent of healthcare organizations say securing patient data isn't a priority.

If you're not feeling ill yet, consider this: Most healthcare organizations say they have little or no confidence in their capacity to lock down patient data, 71 percent say they don't have enough resources, and 69 percent say they don't have the proper policies and processes to detect data breaches.

Meanwhile, the average cost to a healthcare organization is $2 million over a two-year period, with each suffering around 2.4 incidents in the past two years. Most breaches are caused by employee mistakes, lost or stolen computing gear, and third-party provider errors, the report found.

"Long-term, the provider-patient relationship in healthcare is based on a bond of trust. Unfortunately, many of the breaches affecting healthcare organizations suggest that the industry has taken patient trust for granted and allowed lax security practices to compromise the integrity of protected health information," says Larry Ponemon, CEO of the Ponemon Institute.

And all of this amid the implementation of the federal mandate to move to electronic patient records. "This realization could not come at a worse time for the industry," Ponemon says. "Playing catch-up with information security during an economic downturn, while also addressing a federal mandate to migrate to electronic health records, will be financially burdensome for too many hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare services providers."

Rick Kam, president of ID Experts, which commissioned the Benchmark Study on Patient Privacy and Data Security, says healthcare is facing a monumental crisis. "We want a call to action. This is a pending crisis similar to that of the BP oil spill: One major provider or healthcare exchange is going to be breached here shortly," Kam says. "And healthcare doesn't prioritize protecting this data."

He says he's not as worried about the large healthcare providers as he is about the healthcare exchanges, and small to midsize practitioners, which are still in the early stages of moving to electronic health records. Large providers are about 50 to 60 percent of the way there, he says.

"Healthcare exchanges will be popping up and records maintenance and setup is costly, and these organizations are so small that they don't have the [security] skill sets," Kam says.

Around 40 percent of healthcare organizations learned of a data breach after a patient complaint, the report says. And 63 percent of healthcare organizations took one to six months to resolve a breach. Overall, 56 percent have either fully deployed or are in the process of deploying an EHR system, and 74 percent of those have an EHR say it better secures patient data.

The most vulnerable data to loss or theft are patient billing (35 percent) and medical records (26 percent).

Meanwhile, the HITECH Act, which requires healthcare organizations to inform patients when their data is compromised due to a breach, appears to have shed light on the lack of data protection in many healthcare organizations, according to the report. "Because of HITECH, the healthcare industry has been forced to address information security in very public manner in much the same way financial services and other consumer-facing organizations did after California SB 1386 in the wake of the ChoicePoint breach," Ponemon says.

More than 70 percent of the study's respondents say HITECH regulations have not "significantly" altered patient record security.

"They are not making the investments in security--it's just not a priority" over revenue, ID Experts' Kam says.

A full copy of the report is available for download here.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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