Secure Email Data for HIPAA Compliance: Protect Your Business

Protecting sensitive or confidential data is not just good business. For some, it’s legally required and subject to audit. For example, HIPAA regulations require organizations to take reasonable steps to ensure the confidentiality of all communications that contain patient or customer information. Health service providers and their business associates and contractors who touch or handle Protected Health Information (PHI) are subject to these rules.

Organizations such as physician’s offices, hospitals, health plans, self-insured employers, public health authorities, life insurers, clearinghouses, billing agencies, information systems vendors, service organizations, and universities could all be considered covered entities and/or business associates or their subcontractors. In addition, mandatory reporting is required for HIPAA violations, even when the data is lost by a third party.

This increases the need for subcontractors to implement the same level of security typically found in larger organizations. The penalties for failure to conform to HIPAA regulations go far beyond the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. They include public humiliation, loss of reputation, brand damage, class-action lawsuits, and yes, even prison. But there are practical ways to avoid these penalties.

Here are some methods to secure your moving data:

1. Do an assessment.

If you do nothing else, at least do an assessment of where your PHI resides, how you get it and where you send it. Knowing where the data is that you need to protect, and how it travels, is the first step.

2. Add layers of security in case people make mistakes.

One of the most common causes of any kind of security breach is human error. Whether conscious, accidental, or simply due to laziness, human error can result in Personally Identifiable Information (PII) or Protected Health Information (PHI) being sent over the Internet as unencrypted text unless content filters are put in place to detect these messages and encode or reroute them safely. You need to:

  • Install smart filters that analyze both the email and its attachments
  • Correlate fields in both documents and attempt to match them to known patient databases
  • Encrypt messages before they’re sent over the Internet

3. Make sure the boundaries between systems are secure.

Communication security breaches commonly occur when data is transferred between two or more systems. It can happen whenever data is transferred between:

  • People within your organization’s firewall
  • People inside and outside your organization’s firewall
  • Your employees and your business associates (and their subcontractors)
  • Your employees and your customers/ patients
  • Two different systems

Whenever information passes between systems and people, the data needs to be secured at all times, even when in transit. You must also ensure the data that is sent to people outside your firewall is always sent in encrypted format, so that no one but its intended recipients can read it.

4. Make sure your internal communications are secure.

Employees who work from home present HIPAA boundary issues. It is critical that they securely transfer data from work to their home computers. Even though your business information will remain within your company it must still pass across the Internet securely. To prevent a mistake that compromises protected information, provide email encryption to any employee with access to PHI.

5. Make sure your business associate and subcontractor communications are secure.

Another boundary issue arises when employees interact with external business associates and subcontractors. It’s likely that they must regularly transfer sensitive information with these external contacts. And they may use different email systems than those in your office. Often, client or patient PII and/or PHI needs to be sent via email. Be sure to secure these emails with encryption that works with many different systems and devices, including mobile devices i.e., smartphones and tablets. Healthcare related institutions must use solutions that make it possible to communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere, no matter what email system or device the other party uses. Likewise, you must demand the ability to securely transfer large files with all these same people.

6. Make sure your communications with telecommuters are secure.

Employees who telecommute comprise another set of boundary issues.

More medical professionals are working from home and often need to transfer large, important and time-sensitive files such as x-rays or mammograms as attachments through your email system. Because the files can be so large, they have the potential to bring your email system to a standstill.

Not only do you need to exchange these files securely, you need to send them in a way that does not overload or crash your email system. So you either must find the time, the budget, and the resources to set up file transfer sites for these large files or you can use encrypted email with a secure large file attachment capability. Either way, you must make absolutely sure that they comply with encryption guidelines.

7. Make sure when your patients communicate with you, everything they do is secure.

Your patients must often submit forms, ask questions of specific people and departments, or submit follow -up information about an ongoing illness or other matter. These communications often contain PHI. Until recently, these needs were served by paper-based processes, but now can be handled through secure electronic forms on your website. But how do you ensure that this data reaches the right department or employee to process it? And can this data be integrated into existing knowledge worker software to track its status? If the request contains sensitive information, is it received from the patient in a secure manner, or did the method of collecting data cause a privacy violation? And if any follow up is needed with the patient, can this be sent securely? With a messaging system in place that provides secure inbound and outbound service, uses email encryption and secure electronic forms, and provides workflow integration, you can streamline your operations and cost-effectively serve patients.

8. Make it easy to transfer even very large files securely.

FTP, or file transfer protocol, is the standard way to transfer files across the Internet. However, it transmits user login credentials and the contents of files in an unencrypted manner. So this is not the secure method needed for transferring. You need a secure messaging system that automatically routes large files, alerts the recipient that they are available, and that tells you when they’ve been opened and by whom.

9. Make sure you can demonstrate that your system is secure.

After an email message is sent, how do you know what happened to it? Did its intended recipient open it? Were its attachments opened? Is there proof that the message was received and was read? Should a question arise about who viewed a message or its attachments, can you prove who read them to an auditor? It’s increasingly obvious that a secure messaging system must be trackable and auditable. To make this possible, messages and their attachments, their metadata and the fingerprinting data must be both viewable and traceable. The fingerprint data must record permanently the IP addresses of the recipient’s computers, and the system’s time must be synchronized with an atomic clock so that message times are never a point of dispute. Such a system would allow your administrators and, if necessary, auditors to easily review and sort through volumes of message information, and quickly retrieve a particular message, as well as all the tracking and fingerprint information associated with it.

If you’re interested in learning more about requirements for protecting sensitive data, including how to ensure the secure exchange of email containing sensitive customer data and simplify compliance in the process.

Read this white paper for details about achieving regulatory and industry compliance when moving:

  • PII
  • PHI
  • Proprietary data
  • Any other types of sensitive information

You’ll get a side-by-side look at specific HIPAA/HITECH and PCI-DSS compliance regulations, and how the  SonicWall Email Encryption service helps you meet each of them.

SonicWall Staff
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