Healthcare organizations remain at risk despite proper HIPAA compliance



Ensuring high quality patient care is the top priority for healthcare providers. As a result, hospitals and private practices aim to optimize the patient experience by operating as efficiently as possible.

That said, when it comes to email exchanges, organizations might unknowingly sacrifice another element of the patient experience: safety. While healthcare providers can send HIPAA compliant emails, they can’t completely eradicate factors beyond their control. However, by recognizing the gap between HIPAA compliance and comprehensive email security, as well as protecting themselves against security threats, healthcare organizations can identify potential issues and implement strategies to ensure security. protected health information (PHI).

HIPAA compliance is not synonymous with security

While healthcare companies should strive for full HIPAA compliance, the reality is that compliance is not about security. Threats that undermine data security and put PSRs at risk, such as human error and cybercriminal activity, exist both inside and outside the organization, regardless of the best efforts. by suppliers. A data breach can result in a HIPAA violation with a fine of up to $ 1.5 million if an investigation reveals that the healthcare provider was negligent in following HIPAA guidelines.

With email being a major threat vector year after year, breaches can occur, even if an organization is doing its best to comply with HIPAA law. This is because HIPAA regulations describe what needs to be done but not the “how”. Too often this leaves an open line on what would be considered “reasonable” when it comes to creating guarantees for RPS, especially technical guarantees, when it comes to emails. This can create gaps for many organizations that do not have the dedicated resources to ensure the security of RPSs, especially as data becomes increasingly digital and cloud-based. More robust security frameworks like HITRUST CSF, ISO, and SOC2 provide better guidance for creating a strong security posture.

In reality, HIPAA compliance is less about ensuring that data breaches never happen; but more on reducing the risk of violation.

Having appropriate policies and practices in place minimizes risk and enables covered entities to respond appropriately in the event of an incident. Healthcare organizations that meet HIPAA compliance requirements, such as limiting the number of staff with access to PHIs and encrypting their emails, significantly reduce the risk of HIPAA violations.

Vendors need to stay abreast of potential threats vigilantly, as the landscape is constantly changing and preventing HIPAA violations relies heavily on proper security measures. Organizations that establish and maintain appropriate safeguards to address email security breaches ensure the long-term health of their practices, avoid HIPAA fines, and earn the trust of their patients.

Human error contributes to healthcare violations

One sure-fire way to lose the trust of patients is to be the victim of a threat through human error. Sending unencrypted emails, accidentally sharing PHI with an unintentional recipient, or falling into a phishing email trap are all preventable mistakes. While organizations traditionally focus on eliminating external threats, human error can be just as dangerous. Healthcare professionals try to prevent unauthorized access to PHI. Nonetheless, the fast-paced and highly stressful nature of the industry cultivates an environment that leaves organizations exposed to email or network security breaches, even from within.

In an effort to reduce human error, the HIPAA privacy rule requires healthcare organizations to adequately train employees and maintain strict policies to secure patient information. Although unique to each healthcare organization, these policies often focus on the use of mobile devices, sharing of credentials, and the ability to recognize and block malicious email. Despite proper training and organizational policies, violations caused by human error can – and will – always happen. In fact, human error was almost 30% of health problems in 2020 alone.

Cybercriminals are a Growing Existential Threat

In contrast, cybercriminals pose external threats to patient data. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided an ideal situation for hackers to steal patients’ electronic health records and then demand ransoms for their safe return. Overcrowded hospitals have put a strain on healthcare workers. They have had to adapt to new and unfamiliar technology, or they may have started relying on email more than ever to maintain patient care. Without an easy-to-use, HIPAA-compliant email solution that protects inboxes from malicious messages, it can lead to successful phishing attacks and malware infections. Unfortunately, successful attacks are daily.

The increase in remote work has created additional risks, as poorly secured remote networks can allow cybercriminals to quickly and covertly steal patient information. Ransomware, in particular, has become an existential threat, as victims end up having to spend money to recover PHI, pay fines, and repair their damaged reputations. A recent IBM study found that the average breach costs an organization $ 4.24 million. Despite the need to keep bad actors at bay, organizations often fail to establish a tight security defense due to the ever-changing security landscape. In the email arena in particular, failure to properly secure incoming and outgoing messages opens the door for cybercriminals to steal valuable patient information. And as technology advances, so will their techniques.

Strategies to improve safety

Healthcare professionals should do all they can to stop cybercriminals from stealing patient data. Yet securing your systems against internal and external threats can seem like a never-ending battle. When one weakness is resolved, another arises.

However, there is a lot that covered entities can do to mitigate risk. A resilient cybersecurity strategy requires a broad approach that encompasses several elements, including:

  • Timely and ongoing training to ensure your staff have the appropriate knowledge to avoid human error
  • Update policies to ensure your organization meets industry standards
  • Adopt new technologies to eliminate the human element wherever possible
  • Secure incoming and outgoing emails to avoid sending unencrypted PHIs and to prevent successful email hacks
  • Use strong password policies to keep bad actors at bay
  • Patch and update networks to cover new security breaches as they occur
  • Increase the security of the cloud network so that employees can work remotely safely

Email encryption is a critical part of your email security strategy. It needs to be part of your healthcare cybersecurity game plan. Under HIPAA, encryption is an “addressable” way of securing emails rather than being required. However, since there is no other effective method of securing email other than encryption, this is a de facto requirement. If you consider a security breach to be a significant issue (as you should), email encryption, especially when emails include PHIs, is a must.

In partnership with a HITRUST CSF certified Email security provider is one of the most secure ways to protect PHI because it demonstrates a company’s commitment to health data security. An email security platform should enable global encryption both in transit and at rest. Encryption will not block all data breach opportunities, but it will prevent unauthorized users from accessing information shared by email, including PHIs. The best inbound email security solutions will avoid the risk of human error by preventing malicious messages from even entering the inbox, being proactive rather than reactive like most spam filtering solutions.

Without maintaining HIPAA compliance and implementing effective strategies to combat RPS threats, healthcare organizations cannot protect patient data. Healthcare providers must do their part to deliver optimized patient experiences while simultaneously creating an environment that secures PHRs in the process.

Photo: Ildo Frazao, Getty Images


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