Digitalization — the conversion of traditional media over to digital media — has impacted a variety of industries, including healthcare. Specifically, telehealth has evolved alongside technology and the digital age, now allowing clients to access the same treatment services via online means.
Though increased access to teletherapy services can broaden a treatment center’s reach, allowing them to provide help to more patients, the process also comes with new risks. Healthcare providers working remotely — and healthcare patients receiving care remotely — are naturally at risk of a data security breach.
Healthcare organizations offering teletherapy have made progress in protecting their platforms from security breaches. Still, any time there is a transfer of secure data online, data risks exist. Telehealth providers and clients are also at risk for potential violations against the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA.
This guide will discuss how healthcare workers can maintain HIPAA compliance while working remotely. It will also outline HIPAA guidelines that healthcare organizations must follow when maintaining a remote workforce and offering telehealth services.
HIPAA Privacy Concerns in Remote Environments
Protected health information, commonly abbreviated as PHI, includes any health data associated with an individual. This information can include their symptoms, medications, outlook, received and recommended therapies, past and future levels of care, and other details. All PHI is protected under HIPAA, to ensure that all patient information remains confidential.
Remote work environments and the rising popularity of telehealth present potential threats to the integrity of a patient’s PHI. This is partially because remote work environments rely more heavily on technology to bridge the distance between healthcare workers. Increased reliance on technology — especially programs that manage PHI or other secure data — opens the door for cybersecurity threats that can compromise patient confidentiality.
Healthcare employees who are new to a remote work environment should also be educated on HIPAA compliance, as it relates to virtual work. Communication between healthcare teams and individual employees should take place across HIPAA-secured communication channels. Patient data should be afforded the same security when handled remotely that it is when handled in a physical office.
Organizational and Employer Compliance for HIPAA in Remote Settings
Hospitals and healthcare organizations alike can take concrete steps toward protecting patients and ensuring HIPAA compliance on all levels. These steps can include:
- Creating training programs that educate employees on how to maintain HIPAA compliance in a remote work environment;
- Regularly monitoring platforms used by employees to ensure that all technology is protected by HIPAA-compliant encryption;
- Familiarizing all patients with HIPAA compliance methods used by both your in-person and remote workforces;
- Providing devices to employees for professional use, and having them configured for network discovery by your IT department;
- Requiring employees to use a VPN — a virtual private network — that protects the data they may interact with when accessing a network;
These and other steps can help organizations maintain full HIPAA compliance, no matter where the majority of their employees work during the day.
HIPAA Compliance in IT Departments to Support Remote Work
IT departments also need to do their part to ensure that their organization maintains full compliance with all HIPAA guidelines. Often, healthcare employees are unaware of the ways their activity might be endangering patient PHI. IT departments must familiarize employees with data protection best practices, to comply with HIPAA guidelines and preserve all patient and company information.
As a first step, IT departments should work to inform healthcare employees about how to best protect patient data. This often means using a VPN when accessing a shared network, to keep patient and company data hidden from public access. IT departments should also advocate for the use of one or two-factor authentication, to verify that the correct user is attempting to access any company device or data set.
It’s important that IT departments install appropriate firewalls, especially for healthcare employees working from private devices. In addition, antivirus software should be kept up to date across all devices with access to company information or PHI.
Many healthcare departments find value in outsourcing their IT needs to a managed service provider (MSP). Rather than attempt to handle the full scope of company technology themselves, they allow an MSP to handle it. Services like data encryption, automation, and IT infrastructure management define success in the MSP space.
It’s important when choosing a managed service provider to identify a partner that shares your commitment to patient data protection. The best MSP systems offer features like device reporting and software integrations, and maintain full network transparency with healthcare clients.
Remote monitoring and management (RMM) services can also make a healthcare IT department’s job easier. IT departments can monitor device status in real-time, addressing any system alerts whenever necessary. The best RMM programs offer distinct advantages like IT automation and scripting, alongside patch management functions, to customize your RMM package to your specifications.
Work From Home HIPAA Compliance for Employees
Even unintentionally, healthcare employees working from home can pose a risk to their employers. In a remote work environment, HIPAA compliance issues — even inadvertent ones — can escalate when not addressed appropriately.
Healthcare employees should take steps to protect both themselves and their company from HIPAA compliance conflicts. These steps can include:
- Encrypting passwords used on both private and company devices, and changing those passwords regularly to prevent security breaches;
- Installing a privacy screen on your device, to ensure that other individuals aren’t inadvertently exposed to confidential data;
- Restricting device usage, so that you are the only individual with access to the information on your computer.
- Using VPNs or other private networks when accessing secure company or personal files;
- Shredding any physical documents when they are no longer needed;
- Refraining from posting work-related information to any social media platforms;
- Using platforms that automatically encrypt PHI before files are transferred;
These and other simple steps can help employees avoid any potential HIPAA violations. These personal protections also help protect healthcare employers and, ultimately, the patients under their care.
As healthcare organizations become more familiar with telehealth and remote employment, they will be able to more easily identify and address potential HIPAA violations before they escalate. End-to-end network security can help erase those concerns, a service that helps healthcare programs continually secure all devices that are a part of their network.