Ensuring HIPAA compliance when using the cloud

Accelerated by the pandemic, health IT has continued to innovate at pace, while having to balance data protection and regulatory rules. However, critical transformations – like transitioning to the cloud – are a tougher challenge for this industry than for others. In fact, just 34% of life science companies have achieved cloud outcomes.

HIPAA cloud

This is largely due to the threat landscape and sensitive nature of data collected by healthcare providers, which requires adhering to stringent regulations – specifically: HIPAA.

Failure to adhere to HIPAA rules can be costly for healthcare providers. In fact, each infraction can lead to a fine of up to $50,000. In 2019 alone, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) collected a massive $15.2 million in fines related to HIPAA violations.

While this appears alarming, healthcare companies that make a concerted effort to comply with HIPAA regulations have nothing to fear. Here is a quick guide into how healthcare providers can ensure HIPAA compliance when using the cloud.

HIPAA and the cloud

The cloud is an expansive industry that consists of many different services for healthcare providers. To ensure that these companies don’t abuse private health information, HIPAA created a series of regulations designed to protect privacy.

As cloud platforms that are working with healthcare providers are concerned with protected health information, each platform is considered a HIPAA business associate. This status implies a few things when it comes to healthcare organizations partnering with cloud services:

  • Healthcare organizations must enter a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with the cloud provider to utilize protected health information. Healthcare providers should not consider partnering with cloud providers unwilling to sign a BAA. Additionally, it is up to the healthcare provider to ensure that the cloud service provider is following HIPAA rules and regulations.
  • Healthcare organizations must obtain a Service Level Agreement (SLA) from their cloud service providers. This agreement should include information about HIPAA concerns such as system availability and reliability, backup data recovery, security responsibility, and disclosure information.
  • Cloud service providers must comply with the Security Rule, Privacy Rule, and the Breach Notification Rule. To gain compliance under these three rules, the cloud provider must adhere to national standards to mitigate security risks, protect customers’ medical records, and report any data breaches once discovered.

Furthermore, HIPAA requires any healthcare data hosted in the cloud to be encrypted at all times. It is recommended that healthcare providers implement additional safety measures to be as secure as possible with healthcare data.

Additionally, each healthcare provider should constantly monitor their cloud service providers to ensure that they are keeping up with the service level agreements. Ultimately, it is up to each provider to make sure that cloud service providers are following the required mandates.

Best practices to ensure HIPAA compliance when using the cloud

Here are a few best practices that all healthcare providers should consider when choosing a cloud service provider.

1. As mentioned above, make sure the cloud service provider signs a BAA. This is essential as it will establish the guidelines of the business relationship and service delivery. This is also required by HIPAA before a healthcare institution is allowed to work with a cloud service provider.

2. Establish access controls and make sure that only authorized people can access private health information. This ensures that data privacy is secured for patients.

3. Encryption is crucial. Healthcare providers need to have end-to-end encryption of all data transmitted to the cloud. It is crucial that systems are established that work to encrypt data from physical locations to the cloud.

4. Set up a system to consistently monitor file integrity. Any organization should have some sort of record of access to any private health information. If any data is changed, healthcare providers need to have a history of the data to verify and correct it.

5. Make sure there is a notification system for data breaches. In the case of a breach, healthcare providers need to investigate any beach and report it as soon as possible to the OCR.

6. Train employees. Constant vigilance is key, and employees need to be as informed as possible when it comes to HIPAA and protected health information. Regular work training is encouraged.

7. Use free risk assessment tools. Healthcare providers are required to conduct regular risk assessments. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) offers a free risk assessment tool to help organizations work through HIPAA requirements.

To summarize, cloud services are becoming increasingly more important to healthcare providers, especially those building the next generation of health tech services. However, healthcare providers must apply strict due diligence and selection criteria when it comes to choosing a cloud partner. Doing so will ensure that personal data is safe and secure – and that your business operations comply with HIPAA regulations.

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