Three Steps to Preventing Data Breaches in Your Practice

July 21, 2015
Aine Cryts

Practices are more at risk for breaches than ever before. Here are a few steps to protect data in the EHR and elsewhere.

Every few weeks, there’s a headline about a healthcare organization that’s been victimized by a hacker or a disgruntled employee. What is your practice doing to protect its data against theft? It can be a balancing act for physician practices that want to provide access to patient information in the EHR and elsewhere, while preventing data breaches. Here are a few steps that can help practices avoid those unfortunate headlines:

Know where your data is

First, you have to know where your data is, said Jim Kelton, managing principal at Costa Mesa, Calif,-based Altius Information Technologies. If you don’t know where your data is transmitted or where it’s stored, you can’t provide the layers of protection that are needed.

 "You have to know where [your data is] transmitted and where it’s stored," he said. Part of this exercise includes determining the practice’s EHR and other clinical information systems-and whether that software is hosted on the cloud. It can also be as mundane as making sure that printed e-mails from patients aren’t sitting around the office.

"There are 18 forms of protected health information, even an e-mail address can identify someone and needs to be protected,” he said.

Know what assets provide access to your data

Once this is done, you need to determine the assets that provide access to the practice’s data. This could be in the doctor’s office, within computer systems, on a server, or in the EHR and other clinical applications themselves. There are often multiple threats to consider, said Kelton. For example, the threat with a laptop is it’s portable and it’s vulnerable because it contains protected patient information.

Having a BYODT – or Bring Your Own Device and Technology – policy is very important, he said. This requires surveying your staff and doing an inventory of the types of technology you’re using to run the practice. It’s during this step that you should determine whether your employees are using smart phones and tablets, cloud storage, flash drives, or external hard drives. It’s also important to keep in mind any data sharing with external contractors doing software development for the practice. "For smaller practices that outsource a lot of services, they need to make sure their business agreements [with vendors and consultants] are solid,” said Kelton.

Identify threats to those assets and build in controls

Those threats could be physical, such as someone entering the practice and stealing a laptop. They could also mean your practice is the intended victim of hackers or viruses, which can infiltrate the EHR and other clinical systems. Some practices even need to be prepared for the actions of a disgruntled employee who sends your client list to their future employer, an action that puts your practice at risk, Kelton said.

Password protection for laptops is a pretty simple solution that works. Also to consider is encrypting the laptop’s hard drive. This action will mean that the hacker won’t be able to access protected patient data on the EHR and other information about your practice, Kelton said

HIPAA requires that each practice identify a security official to develop and implement security policies, implement procedures, and oversee and protect protected health information. According to Kelton, putting together a plan in advance is the most cost-effective way to ensure that data breaches don’t occur.