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Healthcare data security: safeguarding patient information in the digital age

April 05, 2024


What is healthcare data security?

Healthcare data security refers to security measures that safeguard medical records and other Protected Health Information (PHI) from being accessed, altered, or deleted without permission.


Most healthcare companies have to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, which establishes national standards to protect personal health information.


Other regulations that impact data protection in healthcare include the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act and the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 27001.


The HITECH ACT builds on HIPAA’s privacy protections, introduces data breach notification requirements, and encourages providers to digitize their health records.


ISO 27001 is an international standard that offers a framework for implementing and managing strong security protocols. While not specific to healthcare, health organizations will often follow these guidelines to feel more confident about their security practices.


Read on to learn more about healthcare data security, why it matters, risk factors for a data breach, and best practices that help you implement robust security solutions to keep patient information safe.


What is the importance of data security in healthcare?

Because health information is so personal, keeping it private is vital for protecting patients’ dignity and wellbeing. If healthcare data were to be disclosed to an employer, insurer, family member, or any other unauthorized person, it could result in stigma, embarrassment, and discrimination. Protecting healthcare data is also important for upholding federal regulations.


Another reason to uphold vigilant patient data security practices is to avoid the negative impacts of data breaches, especially now that hackers regularly seek out PHI. Medical records are frequently targeted by cyber criminals who aim to hold patient information for ransom, sell it on the black market, or use it to commit fraud — a concerning trend that’s increasing year over year.



Current landscape of healthcare data security

The fast-paced nature of tech innovation is changing the landscape of how healthcare organizations should approach data protection. Hacking attempts are becoming more sophisticated, but so is technology that improves data security.


Risk factors, threats, and challenges in healthcare data protection

There are a number of risk factors that can impact how effective data security measures are, including the use of legacy systems, unsecured wireless networks, inadequate security for medical devices, employees’ poor data security habits, and the rising incidence of data breaches. While these and other emerging threats may seem daunting, healthcare organizations can adopt solutions that deal with them effectively and keep patient data protected.

  • Use of legacy systems
    Outdated systems are more vulnerable to cyber attacks. This is especially true when a manufacturer no longer provides regular security updates to stay current with cyber-crime trends. By replacing legacy systems and software with modern technologies, healthcare organizations can lower their risk for data breaches.
  • Unsecured wireless network connections
    Electronic records and the digitization of healthcare operations has done a lot to make care more convenient for both patients and providers. However, healthcare organizations that rely on unsecured wireless networks to share and access information can be prime targets for hackers. It’s important for providers to make sure wireless networks are secured to stop cyber criminals from easily stealing patient data.
  • Inadequate security for medical devices
    Many devices that are critical for patient care, such as X-rays and MRI machines, can store patient data and connect to the internet. Just like wireless networks, these devices need to be secured to prevent them from becoming useful points of access for hackers to steal personal information.
  • Poor data security habits
    When busy professionals in the healthcare space are working under pressure, it can be easy for them to fall into time-saving habits that ultimately put patient data at risk. Having duplicate passwords across accounts and systems is one example of this, along with accessing unencrypted patient data on a personal device. With regular training and reminders of security best practices for employees, healthcare organizations can close these security gaps.
  • Data breaches
    Unfortunately, Data breaches are occurring much more frequently today than in the past. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has recorded a 93% increase in large breaches from 2018 to 2022, with a 278% increase in large breaches involving ransomware. Most recently, in January 2024, the number of healthcare data breaches was recorded to be 45% higher than the previous year. These statistics emphasize how crucial patient data security measures are.


The impact of healthcare cybersecurity breaches

The impact of cybersecurity breaches in healthcare can be substantial. The fact is, every month millions of healthcare records are compromised in data breaches reported to the OCR, and millions of people are exposed to the consequences of leaked sensitive information. The healthcare organizations involved end up facing financial and reputational damage as a result.


Due to government fines, lawsuits, ransomware, and other factors the average cost of a healthcare data breach is $10.93 million. Given the toll that these security breaches can take on both patients and organizations, the importance of data security in healthcare cannot be overstated. Fortunately, the right data security solutions can prevent these incidents from happening.


Related read: Are you prepared for today’s modern cyber threats?



Insights and trends in healthcare data security

The current healthcare data security landscape compounds risk factors we touched on above, with trends that heighten the need for software and solutions organizations can rely on to protect patient data.


Transition to electronic records

Electronic health records (EHRs) have been a critical development in healthcare information technology, improving the ease of relaying patient information to increase healthcare efficiency and effectiveness. In the ten years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, basic EHR adoption surged from 6.6% to 81.2%. The public health crisis underscored the importance of EHRs as they helped providers quickly locate information they needed while dealing with a high volume of patients. As the adoption of EHRs becomes more widespread, so does the need for stronger data security in healthcare to protect digital information from cyber attacks.


Rising cybersecurity threats

The COVID-19 pandemic also saw a sharp rise in cyber attacks, and unfortunately the rate of the incidents remains high. The average cost of cybercrime worldwide is expected to rise to tens of trillions of dollars by 2028 as hackers become increasingly sophisticated. Experts are even anticipating the use of AI to generate more convincing phishing campaigns to steal information.


Phishing is already the most commonly-used method for attacking healthcare organizations, and the method behind the largest healthcare data breaches in history. 57% of healthcare organizations say a phishing attack caused their most significant security incident. Healthcare organizations and professionals will have to stay up-to-date on the latest, most advanced phishing tactics to successfully protect patient information.


Unique data holdings in healthcare

Not only is the data held by health organizations of a highly sensitive nature, it’s often complex, heterogenous, and unstructured. It may be stored across multiple systems and providers, and a myriad of different sources can result in interoperability issues — as well as multiple points of access for cyber criminals. This is still true today despite the fact that healthcare is generating more data than ever, accounting for about 30% of the world’s volume. The use of health-tracking apps and devices is driving this increase, as are advancements in health data analysis.


Regulatory changes

After hearing from thousands of patients, providers, and organizations, HHS’s OCR issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to strengthen HIPAA Privacy Rule protections in 2023. According to the NPRM, PHI should never be disclosed in order to identify, investigate, prosecute, or sue anyone involved in providing legal reproductive health care in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The OCR also launched an initiative requesting public input on certain requirements of the HITECH Act, including one that directs HSS to consider what security practices were put in place when issuing fines for breaches.


These regulatory initiatives reflect shifts in healthcare policy and technological advancement that emphasize the importance of re-evaluating patient data security to keep pace with changing times.


Related read: Improving the patient experience with digitized and secured patient medical records



HIPAA compliance and regulatory influence

HIPAA was introduced to establish security standards to protect sensitive health information, reduce fraud, and improve healthcare portability. Complying with HIPAA regulations helps providers protect their patients’ information and avoid legal consequences for their organizations.


Importance of HIPAA compliance

By complying with HIPAA, healthcare organizations meet best practices for patient data security. They control who can access health information, upholding patient privacy and dignity. They also make it easier for patients to obtain copies of their information so they can move between providers with greater ease and eliminate the need for repetitive tests. Complying with HIPAA helps build a culture of trust with patients.


When healthcare organizations fail to meet security standards, their data is vulnerable and more likely to be compromised by cyber criminals. Neglecting HIPAA may also result in patient complaints that lead to heavy financial penalties and corrective action. By using the right security tools, healthcare organizations can make sure they have nothing to worry about.


Identifying risk factors for compliance

Some of the factors that may cause healthcare organizations to risk non-compliance include weak data security, a lack of employee awareness of security protocols, and failure to conduct regular risk assessment audits. In a world of rapid technological development, staying up-to-date on HIPAA procedures is an important step towards effectively safeguarding patient information. In the process of complying with the latest regulations, providers implement powerful security measures and establish processes to ensure their protections remain strong.



Recommendations for robust healthcare data security

Given the importance of IT security in healthcare, an effective data security strategy is top-priority for providers. Successful strategies depend on the strength and reliability of security software, among other factors.


Put data security measures in place

Healthcare providers can establish effective security measures to protect patient information by investing in dependable data security software. Make sure that patient data is secured with a high level of encryption and that all platforms healthcare professionals use to gain access to data — including IoT devices — are protected by a strong, unique password. Modern data security depends on tools designed to halt the progress of today’s sophisticated cyber criminals.


Take a proactive approach

Given the prevalence of cyber attacks on healthcare organizations, having a proactive plan in place is essential. In addition to implementing software solutions, it’s crucial to establish a regular schedule of security audits and training for professionals to stay up-to-date on regulations and best practices for protecting patient information.


Update software consistently

Because technology and cybercriminal tactics are constantly evolving, frequent software updates are critical for maintaining data security in the healthcare industry. Updates often include patches for known vulnerabilities, and implementing them automatically puts valuable protections in place. Software updates also frequently account for changes to regulations and help healthcare organizations stay compliant.


Fuse security with productivity

One key advantage of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and other technology advancements in healthcare is that they improve operational efficiency. It’s important to protect PHI while still making it easy for healthcare teams to exchange information. Solutions such as secure file-sharing software that streamlines workflows can create valuable time savings for providers and improve the patient experience.


Related read: Great security doesn't have to get in the way of a great user experience



Adopting patient data security for the modern world

Healthcare data security is a priority for any healthcare organization. Providers care about protecting patients’ rights to privacy and complying with regulatory practices to avoid both HSS OCR fines and potentially devastating data breaches.


The reality is, many healthcare organizations have multiple risk factors for cyber attacks, and data security trends are calling for more rigorous security protocols. But this doesn’t mean that breaches are always bound to happen. When providers find the right technology partner to secure patient information, they harness the advantages of digital innovation to keep patient information safe. In the digital age, data security risks are higher, but security tools are also more capable of defending healthcare organizations from bad actors so they can keep focusing on providing excellent care.