Healthcare practices must comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) when handling protected health information (PHI). However, staying HIPAA-compliant can be challenging because there are numerous rules and regulations to follow and keep track of.
Unfortunately for healthcare organizations, noncompliance can result in costly penalties. In fact, based on a summary of HIPAA violation cases from 2013 to 2023, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been taking more enforcement action than ever before.
To help you strengthen the privacy of your patients' data and avoid costly fines and penalties, follow these tips for maintaining HIPAA compliance.
1. Train employees to follow HIPAA security best practices
Train everyone in your organization to adhere to security best practices and make sure to regularly monitor their level of compliance. In particular, employees should be trained on how to protect PHI against unauthorized entities. This includes preventing conversations about PHI from being overheard, as well as knowing how to properly store and dispose of documents containing sensitive data.
2. Regularly audit your security policies and procedures
Per HIPAA rules, all covered entities must perform security evaluations to ensure the safety of patient information. Exactly how frequently these evaluations must be done is unspecified, but it's highly recommended that you conduct a full audit at least once a year or when significant modifications are made to your procedures or technology. For instance, if you've set up new servers or added new cloud-based applications to your current workflows to handle PHI, it's imperative that you carry out a comprehensive security review.
3. Do business with compliant vendors only
It's critical that any vendor, service provider, or business associate who has access to your system is cognizant of HIPAA regulations. This includes all entities that handle PHI, which can be independent medical transcriptionists, certified public accountants, medical billing companies, and IT firms. Before transacting with any of these entities, make sure that there's a contractual agreement for the vendor/third party to take appropriate steps to protect patient information and abide by HIPAA rules.
4. Create a disaster recovery plan
HIPAA rules require covered entities to implement a contingency plan in case of any incidents, such as natural disasters, power outages, or security breaches. This plan includes having a robust backup plan and should outline steps that people can take when restoring access to systems and recovering lost data. It should also include measures to prevent future threats and limit any potential damage from occurring.
5. Ensure compliance with breach notification rules
HIPAA has an exhaustive breach notification rule, and all covered entities are obligated to follow it and make sure to notify patients when there is a breach involving their information. As a covered entity, you are required to provide a written statement of any breach that affects more than 500 people in a geographic area. Additionally, you should report all breaches to the OCR within 60 days of discovery. On the other hand, if a breach affects fewer than 500 individuals, reporting may be done within a year of the breach.
6. Obtain written consent from patients
Always get written consent from patients before you use their information for any purpose. In the consent form, explain why their data is being collected, how it will be used, and what security measures are in place to protect it. This shows that you respect your patients' rights and at the same time, they are kept informed about how their information is handled.
7. Put up physical and technical safeguards
Safeguarding how PHI is physically accessed can be done by securing your premises, locking file cabinets, and restricting access to certain areas or to certain files to authorized personnel only. Moreover, you should designate appropriate workstations for accessing PHI, routinely inspect facilities for potential risks and vulnerabilities, and limit access to data on a need-to-know basis.
Technical safeguards also help boost the confidentiality and integrity of PHI. These safeguards must include using appropriate authentication methods, such as passwords and encryption, limiting user access by using firewalls or virtual private networks, and regular monitoring system activity.
8.Encrypt all PHI data
Data encryption is one of the most effective ways to protect sensitive patient data and avoid violating HIPAA rules. Encryption scrambles data such as electronic PHI (ePHI) into an unreadable format to keep it anonymous, reducing the risk of a breach. Whether they’re stored electronically or sent over a network, all ePHI should be encrypted to render them inaccessible to those who are unauthorized and/or cybercriminals.
Related reading: Is HIPAA compliance a priority for your healthcare practice?
By following these tips, you can keep PHI secure and remain compliant with HIPAA rules. It may seem like a lot of work, but it can save you from costly fines or penalties in case you're ever audited by the OCR.
Consult Healthy IT's healthcare tech experts to boost your practice's IT systems so you can stay on top of HIPAA compliance regulations. Call us today.