Do No Harm: How to Protect Patient Data in Healthcare
The adoption of electronic health records (EHR) has had many benefits for patients and providers. With an EHR, providers get up-to-the-minute information on their patients, which leads to more accurate and effective care. EHR systems also reduce costs and improve provider productivity.
But, the widespread use of EHRs and other tech-forward systems, such as telehealth and internet-connected devices has introduced a new concern for hospitals and medical providers: the data breach.
Once you know the issues affecting cybersecurity in healthcare, you can take steps to prevent a data breach and maintain the integrity of patient information.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights started publishing information and statistics on medical data breaches back in 2009. Since then, the numbers have been grim.
From 2009 to 2021, there were more than 4,400 data breaches in healthcare that resulted in the exposure of at least 500 records. All told, 314,063,186 healthcare records were stolen, lost or exposed between 2009 and 2021.
Data breaches do more than potentially expose details about patients’ medical conditions. Patients often give their medical providers lots of information that’s valuable to hackers. Often, providers’ practices have access to patient’s social security numbers, addresses, birthdays and credit card details, all of which hackers can use to steal identities and wreak havoc on people’s personal lives.
At an institutional level, there are several threats to patient privacy and data protection. By far, the most common cause of data breaches in healthcare is an attack by hackers. The second most common cause of data breaches or cybersecurity issues is inside mistakes or malicious attacks from hospital staff.
The following threats are all too common in the healthcare field:
- Too much information: Less is more, at least when it comes to patient information. Doctors don’t always need to know everything about their patients, or at least, that information doesn’t need to be stored in the patient’s EHR.
- Too little protection: The one exception to “less is more” occurs when it comes to protection. A weak password is often just as worthless as no password.
- Open networks: Many hospitals and medical practices offer free, open WiFi to patients and visitors. While free WiFi is another perk that can make a hospital stay or doctor’s visit more enjoyable, it also opens a medical provider up to cybersecurity threats, particularly if the network is open and used by all.
- Limited staffing: Healthcare providers and systems everywhere are feeling the staffing crunch, and not just when it comes to doctors and nurses. Many hospitals and medical practices skimp on IT staff, too. Not having a large enough IT department to keep up with the practice’s technology needs can increase the risk of data breaches and cybersecurity issues.
- Limited training: Doctors and nurses spend years training to practice medicine and provide care. What they often don’t do is spend years learning the basics of cybersecurity and the safe use of an EHR.
- Bring your own device policies (BYOD): BYOD can seem like a great money-saving trick for hospitals and healthcare practices, especially if providers all use their own smartphones, tablets or laptops. But it also ramps up the risk of a cyber threat.
The medical system thrives on trust. Your patients need to know that any information they give you will be kept safe and out of harm’s way. Everyone, from hospital administrators to doctors to patients, can take the following steps to prevent data breaches and keep confidential patient information confidential:
You don’t have to be a tech whiz to get in the habit of using strong passwords and encouraging others to do the same. Strong passwords are the following:
- Long, more than 10 characters
- Unique (don’t use the same password for multiple accounts)
- Mixed up, containing letters, numerals and special characters
In addition to making strong passwords, turn on two-factor authentication (2FA) when you can. With 2FA, you have to provide an additional level of verification, like a code sent to you via text, be
Hackers and scammers try to access information in several ways. One tactic involves impersonating medical professionals and trying to get patients or doctors to reveal key information, like a password or social security number.
Anytime someone asks for information, take action to verify that they are who they claim to be. Better yet, be extra cautious about the details you provide. Unless you’re logging into a system, no one needs to have your password.
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Systems and software need to be kept up-to-date for maximum security. Those software update messages may be annoying and the time it takes to update a system might seem like forever, but it’s a must-do if you want to minimize the risk of data breaches and protect your patients.
4. Train Employees
Rookie doctors are known for making mistakes. The best way to cut back on the risk for errors and accidental data breaches is to make sure your team knows how to use your EHR and the basics of cybersecurity.
Every time you hire a new employee, whether they’re a full-time or temporary hire, take the time to train them. Also, offer continuing education to existing team members, so they are always up-to-date on the latest security issues and data protection methods.
Encourage doctors to be proactive when learning about healthcare technology. The more a medical staff knows about cybersecurity, the smaller the burden is on the IT team.
If you’re going to offer free WiFi, create a separate network for guest use. Hackers can easily get access to your files and data if they also get access to a practice’s WiFi.
Patients have a role to play in enhancing cybersecurity for medical practices. If they have access to their medical information through a patient portal, encourage them to create strong passwords and use 2FA.
Also, remind patients of your practice’s policies concerning medical information. For example, tell them that you’ll never call and ask them to reveal details, like their passwords or other identifying information.
If a data breach does occur, be proactive about informing patients. The more they know about the breach, the better able they’ll be to protect themselves from additional harm.
Data breaches don’t have to be part of the modern healthcare system. With some planning and preparation, doctors, practices and patients can protect themselves and their personal information.
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