Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

What are HIPAA Encryption Best Practices?

Posted by Paul Taylor on Jul 10, 2012 8:02:00 AM

HIPAAThe Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 establishes and governs national standards for electronic health care transactions.  According to the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 

The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides federal protections for personal health information held by covered entities and gives patients an array of rights with respect to that information.... The Security Rule specifies a series of administrative, physical, and technical safeguards for covered entities to use to assure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information.

The protections under HIPAA have been expanded by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH).  Again, according to the Department of Health and Human Services:

HITECH requires healthcare organizations to take more responsibility for protecting  patient records and health information. The Act widens the scope of privacy and security protections available under HIPAA, increases potential legal liability for non-compliance and provides more enforcement of HIPAA rules. The HITECH Act seeks to streamline healthcare and reduce costs through the use of health information technology, including the adoption of electronic health records.

HITECH defines a data breach of protected health information (PHI) as any unauthorized use, access or disclosure of PHI that violates the HIPAA Privacy Rule and poses significant financial, reputational or other harmful risks to an individual.

Should SMBs be concerned about a data breach of PHI?  A recent study found that only 5 percent of data breaches are caused by malicious cyber attacks, while almost 55 percent are linked to human error. 

To determine whether a PHI data breach has occurred, HHS looks at various factors, some within your control, some not.  A key question the Department will ask in the event of a data breach is:  Was the PHI safeguarded by encryption?

What level of HIPAA encryption is recommended?  What are the HIPAA encryption best practices?  The key, as the Practice Management Center of the American Medical Association points out, is to "...render electronic personal health information (ePHI) unusable, unreadable or indecipherable to unauthorized individuals...".  If you follow the specific technologies/methodologies prescribed, you increase the likelihood of being relieved of the potentially burdensome and expensive notification requirements established by the HITECH for a data breach.

Best practices for HIPAA encryption include:

  1. Ensuring your encryption is certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 
  2. Using an encryption key management appliance that is FIPS 140-2 certified. Federal information processing standards codes (FIPS codes) are a standardized set of numeric/alphabetic codes issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  They are designed to establish uniform identification of geographic entities through all federal government agencies. 
  3. Encrypting any and all systems and individual files containing ePHI including medical records (and related personnel records), scanned images, your practice management systems and any emails that contain ePHI.
  4. Encrypting data that is published on the Internet.  
  5. Encrypting data on your computers, including all laptops.
  6. Encrypting data that leaves your premises.
  7. Encrypting all sessions during which your data was accessed remotely.  This last one requires diligence supervision to ensure that it is followed every single time.  It should become a habit, something each staff member with access offsite does as a matter of course. 

HIPAA encryption protects not only the personal health information of employees and patients from unauthorized disclosure and use, it protects SMBs from the potentially significant costs (i.e., financial, administrative and via damage to the organization's reputation) that result from such disclosure. 

View our webcast “Protecting PHI and Managing Risk – HIPAA/HITECH Compliance” to learn how your organization can manage their risk of a data breach and achieve breach notification safe harbor status.

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Topics: Encryption, Best Practices, HIPAA