Healthcare Is Turning Digital — What Does That Mean For Protecting PHI?

Like many industries, healthcare is no longer analog. From a patient’s perspective, this digital transformation could mean doing a routine appointment via telephone or video chat, completing forms electronically, or receiving more advanced treatment that came about from doctors digitally analyzing data. From a provider’s point of view, that could mean filling out charts digitally, accessing PHI that lives in the cloud, or access EMR systems, MRI results, and more from a remote workstation.

This kind of evolution touches every aspect of the healthcare industry, and when it comes to PHI and EMR systems, it completely changes not only how valuable systems and data are accessed, but how they need to be protected.

How Does Digitization Change PHI Access?

The giant file cabinets full of physical paper with typed out PHI are gone. Instead, that valuable, care-critical information is stored on servers (or the cloud) and can be accessed on remote workstations across a healthcare organization. However, whenever an organization introduces a more digital method of accessing data, especially data as valuable as PHI, that organization is also introducing risk.

Risks associated with PHI access include:

  • External hackers gaining access and stealing data
  • Internal users violating HIPAA by accessing PHI they should not have access to
  • Internal users accessing and misusing or stealing private health information

EMR systems, now digital, are accessed millions of times a day per organization. That’s a million opportunities for access to go awry, and a million moments where HIPAA could be violated.

Yes, digitization is efficient, but it can also be costly. 

Healthcare Hacks Highlight Need For PHI Protection

Healthcare hacks are not a hypothetical. In fact, 38 cyberattacks caused disruption of services to 963 healthcare locations in 2021. Big hospital networks are a target — Eskenazi Health (in Indiana) stated that cybercriminals got onto the network and released stolen data to the dark web — but organizations of any size that utilize PHI could be at risk. 20/20 Eye Care Network was also breached in 2021 through their Amazon Web Services, and found that personal information was removed.

These kinds of attacks can result in dangerous system downtime, lawsuits, HIPAA violations and disruptions to patient care.

Solutions For Protecting PHI and EMR Systems

As organizations move to a digital-first approach, they need to make sure their critical access points and assets stay protected as they move from manilla folders to the cloud.

For healthcare organizations this means:

1. Investing in EMR monitoring systems. Monitoring who is accessing what is crucial for security, especially when the sheer volume of access prevents fine-grained access controls. EMR access monitoring systems, especially ones that utilize machine learning, can flag inappropriate access in real time, as well as record and audit access attempts for both security and compliance needs.

2. Taking cybersecurity as seriously as you do digitization. Too many organizations are moving to a digital, third-party heavy architecture and leaving their cybersecurity in the past. If you rely on old methods, software, hardware, or access strategies, you’re basically leaving all the doors unlocked and all the lights on. Instead, it’s time to audit all your access points, re-evaluate your access management strategy, and invest in healthcare-specific cybersecurity.