HIPAA and Remote Work: How to Keep Patient Data Safe in a Virtual Environment

With the new age of connectivity in healthcare, you can virtually connect to patients and stay updated with their health records. This has led to increased efficiency, greater accessibility, and high-quality services. 

However, remote operations in the healthcare sector face many challenges, especially for those obliged to HIPAA compliance. Keeping clients’ data and information secure is essential to comply with HIPAA privacy standards. 

HIPAA Risks in a Remote Work

Safeguarding clients’ protected health information (PHI) is vital in healthcare. If you are not taking HIPAA seriously, then get ready to face hefty financial penalties in case of failure to protect PHI. You can understand HIPAA in detail here: https://nordlayer.com/security-compliance/hipaa/

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According to the HIPAA journal, 2023 was the second-worst year in terms of data breaches, as 707 data thefts were reported of 500 or more records. Web browser and email phishing attacks were the most common causes of data breaches in the healthcare sector. 

Cancer Care Group is a real-life example of remote healthcare risks. In a car theft incident, a remote employee lost his laptop containing 50,000 patients’ PHI. The company failed to conduct enterprise-wide risk analysis and was liable to pay $750,000 because of violating HIPAA Security Rule. This shows that you are at risk of data breaches even if you are working from home. 

Remote work opens more doors to unauthorized access to PHI. If remote employees use their own devices, they would be more susceptible to malware attacks, increasing the risks of HIPAA breaches. 

How to Create a HIPAA-Compliant Remote Workspace?

So what can you do to safeguard patients’ information and avoid HIPAA violations in a virtual sphere? Here are the best practices to follow!

Ensure Password Security:

One way to avoid HIPAA violations while working from home is by encrypting your home’s wireless router traffic with a secured password. Change the default password of your wireless router, as it is written right on the side of the router. 

Similarly, ensure your endpoint devices are protected with a strong password. But how to create a strong password? An average hacker will have to spend years to crack an 18-character long password containing uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numerals, and symbols. Hence, that is the way to go. Moreover, do not share your password or ask your coworkers to log in to your account. 

Use HIPAA-Compliant Tools:

Social media and public-facing applications are not engineered to protect patients’ data. Be careful while choosing the communication tools between doctor and staff or doctor and patient. It is recommended to opt for HIPAA-compliant tools to ensure secure communication.

Invest in VPN & Data Encryption

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Healthcare companies or third-party service providers transmit patients’ information, such as names, medical records, test results, etc., via email, text messages, and other media. This poses patients’ sensitive information at the risk of data theft.

Therefore, encrypting the information at every step of the PHI flow is important. Data encryption codes the information so that unauthorized users can not get access. Moreover, ensure that PHI stored in the laptop or flash drives is encrypted. 

A VPN is an effective way to access your internet connection, even if you are using public WiFi. VPN adds a layer of encryption to the data that passes through it, which means an unauthorized user won’t be able to read it. This is extremely important if you are dealing with patients’ confidential information in a remote workspace. After using the company’s VPN, make sure to log out immediately. This can be enforced through measures, such as IT configuring timeouts.

Enroll in HIPAA Compliance Training 

According to Verizon’s 2022 Report, 82% of data breaches involve human error. Therefore, all remote workers in an organization should take HIPAA training to know what HIPAA violations are and how to avoid them in a virtual setting. It should include all members of the business associate workforce or covered entity. 

Maintain a Clean Workspace

A cluttered home office where your patient’s sensitive information is left unattended is a serious HIPAA violation concern. One serious security concern while working from home is that anyone can access your workspace. 

Therefore, it is vital to lock your system while not in use or use a privacy screen so a passerby can not see the data displayed on your screen. Avoid printing PHI, and if it is necessary, discard it properly after use. If you are transferring PHI to any external media, make sure you are using the hard drive, flash drive, or other materials that have been approved by the company.

Secure Remote Access

Secure access to PHI is an important compliance measure for organizations obligated under HIPAA. If doctors or remote workers use a platform to log in to their computer network and access patients’ information, ensure some extra protection layers are in place.

Besides having a strong password, there should be two-step authentication so unauthorized users can not access patients’ sensitive information. Moreover, they should use a VPN while connecting to a public connection. After using the network, they should safely sign out to avoid leaving any clue for the malicious actors. 

Establish Security Policies

Enforcement of security policies is another effective measure to avoid HIPAA violations. It avoids unmonitored or unauthorized changes to the data that violate integrity or accuracy.

Therefore, employers need to enforce security policies, and employers working from home must follow these policies. The enforcement can be done through procedural measures, such as background checks or training employees on security policies.

Policies usually cover the safe ways to store and dispose of PHI and the devices utilized to access the information. Remote employees must not allow other people to use their devices. Moreover, remote workers must read the Confidentiality Policy and sign BYOD Agreement with clear usage rules.

Stay Up to Date

Updating your applications and software is another effective measure to ensure HIPAA compliance. This will protect patients’ data and deter the possibility of cyber attacks. 

Install software patches and ensure your antivirus software aligns with the latest security threats. If you are using IT support, it must be able to ensure that the device accessing your network is encrypted, password protected, configured, and equipped with firewalls. 

Conclusion: 

HIPAA is not something that only an office employee is obliged to comply with. All remote workers must follow the privacy standards of HIPAA and ensure the security of patients’ sensitive information. 

Among all the security measures, HIPAA compliance training for all remote workers should be ensured. Healthcare service is not just entitled to protect patients’ health, it must also protect patients’ data from falling into the wrong hands.

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