Healthcare organizations face the complex task of ensuring database security. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) strictly mandates that the healthcare industry create policies and procedures to maintain the security and privacy of patients’ protected health information (PHI). Adhering to these regulations allows healthcare organizations to maintain database security and patient trust.
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The Importance of Safeguarding Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI)
Electronic PHI (ePHI) refers to digital medical records, treatment plans, payment details, and the like. If a healthcare provider uses technology to transmit patient data, the tool should be HIPAA-compliant to maintain confidentiality, prevent identity theft, and avoid legal ramifications. For the same reasons, policies and procedures to store, access, and transmit ePHI should also adhere to HIPAA rules for database security. Failure to secure ePHI can lead to severe consequences, including massive fines and legal liabilities.
HIPAA Database Security Requirements
HIPAA regulations for database security are designed to give access to ePHI while maintaining data privacy. To comply with HIPAA, health organizations must implement strong security measures, including technical, physical, and administrative safeguards, in their facilities and while working remotely. These safeguards aim to prevent the misuse and unauthorized access of protected health information.
Technical safeguards for database security
Healthcare organizations should implement the following technical safeguards to ensure database security:
- Access controls – only authorized personnel should be able to access a healthcare organization’s database. To implement this, use multifactor authentication (MFA) or two-factor authorization (2FA) on software programs and shared drives. Use unique user identification, encryption, passwords and biometrics, and role-based access controls. Staff should only be able to access the minimum necessary information to perform their job roles.
- Audit controls – Use tracking and monitoring tools to minimize unauthorized access. These tools should be able to generate audit logs and record behavior such as user logins, file access, and file modifications. Audit logs help healthcare organizations monitor suspicious activities. In case of a data breach, these records can be used to know the extent of the damage and detect any unusual patterns.
- Secure transmission – HIPAA rules for database security require the protection of ePHI throughout the process of storing, accessing, and transmitting. When sending and receiving ePHI, it is always best to use HIPAA-compliant communication and file-sharing tools like iFax and Google Drive. Virtual private networks (VPNs) also help secure your transmissions further.
- Automatic logoff – Implement automated security measures to automatically terminate an online session after a period of inactivity. This helps prevents unauthorized access, especially when staff fails or forgets to log out.
Physical safeguards for database security
In addition to technical measures, HIPAA requires physical safeguards to protect their data. These requirements focus on the physical facilities and tools that store PHI—using locks, surveillance cameras, and biometrics in rooms and buildings housing sensitive patient data. In addition, make sure that only authorized personnel can access HIPAA compliant database servers.
Staff should also be trained on applying workstation security measures. Use a double lock (an extra layer of protection) on PHI storage. For instance, a filing cabinet should have a dedicated key and be simultaneously housed in a secure room.
Properly disposing of PHI also falls under this category. Healthcare providers have been fined millions of dollars for the improper disposal of PHI. Avoid throwing physical medical records and containers in trashcans or public areas. Shred confidential physical documents and always keep a detailed and accurate log of your disposal process.
Administrative safeguards for database security
Healthcare organizations should have policies, procedures, and workflows to ensure the security and privacy of ePHI. Some of these include:
- Conducting risk assessments to identify potential weaknesses in database security
- Providing HIPAA training for staff to ensure that they are aware of and comply with the best practices for handling patient data
- Enforcing HIPAA-compliant policies and procedures
- Developing security management processes to ensure the ongoing monitoring and maintenance of database security
- Creating and applying an incident response plan in case of a data breach
Breach Notification and Reporting
Healthcare organizations should promptly notify the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the affected patients when a data breach occurs. In some cases, the media should also be informed (i.e., if the incident has affected more than 500 individuals). The notification should include the following:
- The breach details
- Detailed steps to minimize the risk
- Information on how affected clients can protect themselves from malicious activities
Prompt reporting helps prevent further patient harm and enables authorities to investigate the incident. It also helps healthcare organizations avoid staggering fines and stiff penalties.
Best Practices for Maintaining Database Security
Consider the following HIPAA data security best practices to ensure HIPAA compliance:
- Regularly conduct risk assessments to quickly
- Implement strong access controls
- Encrypt ePHI during storage, access, and transmission
- Develop clear HIPAA-compliant policies and processes for handling ePHI.
- Provide regular workforce training on HIPAA compliance and database security
- Monitor and audit user activity on databases
- Respond to suspicious activity promptly
- Update and patch software and hardware to protect against emerging threats
- Engage with business associates that comply with HIPAA regulations
- Stay informed on the best practices in database security to be able to address possible threats proactively
Complying with HIPAA rules for database security ensures the safety and privacy of patient data stored in healthcare systems. Implementing technical, physical, and administrative safeguards can protect ePHI further from malicious actors and unintentional data breaches. By adhering to HIPAA rules and regulations, healthcare providers can build patient trust and avoid serious legal problems.