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Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

CIOs in Healthcare Still in a Reactive Posture

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Jul 12, 2012 8:50:00 AM

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The Healthcare industry is still struggling to come to terms with the new HIPAA/HITECH requirements to protect patient health information. There are now clear requirements to protect patient information (called Protected Health Information, or PHI) from loss, and data breach notification is now mandatory, but CIOs in the medical segment have not yet developed pro-active attack plans to secure their data, and are caught by surprise when they experience a data breach - something that is happening at an alarming rate.

Why is this?

I think we can understand this by looking back at the history of the Payment Card Industry rollout of data security standards about 8 years ago. In the early days of PCI DSS compliance, many companies also took a reactive stance regarding the regulations. I heard CIOs say that they thought their data was already safe, that their IT staff assured them that everything was OK, and even that they would only do something if they had a loss and were forced to make changes. I even heard “I’ll pay the fine and do the time if I get caught.”

It took a number of years before CIOs and their executive teams who fell under PCI DSS to come to understand the real impacts of data breaches and developed a pro-active stance around data protection. Companies came to realize that data breach costs went far beyond the initial fines for non-compliance. There are litigation costs, costs for notifications, new external audit requirements that extended years into the future, opportunity costs while valuable staff focused on fixing the problem and not enhancing the business, and a loss of confidence by their customers and partners. Additonally, breaches can create a public relations nightmare for your company and possible long-term damage to the brand. All of these have real impacts on the bottom line.

When companies in the payment industry fully grasped the impacts of a data breach, they went to work pro-actively to protect sensitive data.

The Healthcare industry is not there yet.

What can a CIO do to change their organization’s posture on protecting PHI? Here are some things to start on:

  • Educate senior management on the real costs of a data breach. (This is probably the most important first step - everyone has to buy into the need and the plan).
  • Involve your IT professionals in creating an inventory of PHI every place it resides in your organization.
  • Identify everywhere in your IT systems where you receive PHI from outside sources, and where you send PHI to outside sources.
  • Create a plan to encrypt PHI and protect the encryption keys.
  • Prioritize your projects. There will be low hanging fruit – places where putting encryption in place is relatively fast and painless.
  • Focus on execution. “Are we there yet?”

I know that the Healthcare industry will eventually get to the right posture on data protection. It will take some time before the realities are well known. But as I talk to CIOs at companies who have experienced a data breach, I know that they get it. Hopefully, these painful lessons will seep into the larger industry sooner rather than later, and you won’t be that CIO who wakes up one morning to the unpleasant surprise of a data breach.

Patrick


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: HITECH, Best Practices, HIPAA, Healthcare

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