Kharmela Mindanao

By: Kharmela Mindanao on December 27th, 2023

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5 Common HIPAA Compliance Issues (& Solutions)

Cybersecurity | HIPAA

Are you worried about making a mistake with your HIPAA compliance? Do you want to prevent fines and avoid being on the HHS’ publicly available list of organizations under breach investigation? 

Then this article is for you.  

Intelligent Technical Solutions (ITS), a managed IT provider with over 20 years of experience helping clients with their Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) compliance, will explore some common HIPAA compliance issues and provide practical tips on avoiding them. We invited Sean Harris, ITS’ Senior VP for Cybersecurity, to share his expertise on this topic.

By the end of this article, your organization will be able to avoid the mistakes made by other healthcare organizations.  

1. Inadequate staff training 

staff training

One of the most prevalent HIPAA compliance pitfalls is inadequate staff training. Healthcare employees may inadvertently compromise patient data due to a lack of awareness about HIPAA regulations.   

Also, due to the rapid development of new cyber hacking techniques, many healthcare providers make the mistake of thinking one cybersecurity workshop is enough for the next year or more. But it’s not, and companies practicing this kind of security awareness training are opening themselves up to unnecessary risk.  

But it doesn’t stop at frequent staff training.  

“It’s also about tracking the effectiveness of the ongoing [security awareness training] program,” Harris added.  

Without an evaluation, you could be wasting your resources on an ineffective solution. It’ll be like shooting in the dark without knowing if you’re hitting your target.   

Solution 

To address this issue, conduct regular security awareness training sessions for all staff members, emphasizing the importance of confidentiality and the specific protocols in place to protect patient information. 

Implement a comprehensive training program covering HIPAA regulations, with periodic refresher courses and security tests to keep staff members up to date on any changes. 

Related: How Much is Security Awareness Training? (& Is It Worth It?) 

2. Weak access controls 

access controls granted

Weak access controls lead to several serious security issues, including data breaches, ransomware demands, and system downtime – all of which are disastrous in a healthcare environment. 

Imagine hackers having access to your patient’s health records or losing access to information during life-saving surgery. 

Many healthcare providers also make the mistake of making files easily accessible to team members instead of denying access by default.  

“Employees should only have access to the files they need for their duties,” Harris said.

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Solution 

Implementing thorough access controls is essential in the healthcare field. Conduct regular user access audits and promptly revoke access for employees who no longer require it.  

Employees should only have access to the minimum necessary information required for their duties, and there should be clear communication between your HR department and your IT department so offboarded employees can’t access company files.  

Centralized log management, antivirus solutions, detection tools, and multifactor authentication (MFA) are also effective tools for controlling and monitoring user access. 

3. Insufficient risk assessment 

risk assessment

HIPAA mandates that covered entities perform regular risk assessments (also called security assessments) to identify and mitigate potential system vulnerabilities.  

Failing to conduct thorough risk assessments leaves healthcare organizations susceptible to data breaches and compromises patient confidentiality. 

Solution 

Harris recommends companies conduct regular risk assessments and penetration testing to cover possible cybersecurity gaps thoroughly. 

"[A risk assessment] is going through the business risks and then looking at the likelihood that that risk will be exploited, the impact if it happens,” Harris said. " But a penetration test is a professional hacker that goes in and tries to exploit the vulnerabilities in a responsible way.”  

“We can make all the risk assessments we want. But if they're easily penetrated through a test, then something needs to change.”  

penetration testing

4. Insecure electronic communication 

Electronic communication is the norm in healthcare. However, transmitting sensitive patient information through unsecured channels poses serious risks to patient safety, data confidentiality, and data integrity.  

secured electronic communication

Outdated technology, weak encryption methods, and multiple personal devices with company access create the perfect storm for cybercriminals to sneak into.   

Solution 

The first solution is implementing end-to-end encryption and protection across all communication channels, ensuring data remains indecipherable to unauthorized entities.  

Robust authentication methods, such as MFA, bolster user verification and limit access to communication records based on organizational roles. Additionally, following cybersecurity best practices play a vital role in fortifying your data protection.     

5. Neglecting Business Associate Agreements (BAAs) 

a business associate agreement

In October 2023, Okta was the target of a data breach following a cyberattack on their third-party provider, which the company used for healthcare services. 

As a healthcare provider, you most likely also collaborate with third-party vendors with access to patient information. Neglecting to establish and maintain proper Business Associate Agreements (BAAs) with these entities can lead to HIPAA violations.  

Solution 

limiting risk

Regularly review and update BAAs to reflect any changes in services or data handling practices of third-party vendors. 

Ensure that all third-party vendors handling patient data sign a BAA, outlining their responsibilities in protecting that information. 

Ready to become HIPAA compliant? 

Navigating the complexities of HIPAA compliance requires a proactive IT approach and a commitment to ongoing cybersecurity 

By addressing common issues such as inadequate training, weak access controls, insufficient risk assessment, insecure electronic communication, and neglecting BAAs, you can enhance your data security measures and protect patient confidentiality.  

But knowing what to do is still a far cry from starting to do it.  

As a managed IT provider for many healthcare institutions, we’ve prepared more resources to help you on your HIPAA compliance journey:  

However, if you want to get started now, schedule a meeting with our IT experts to walk you through the process.  

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