Data Privacy and Security Risks In Healthcare Industry

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Just like other mainstream businesses, the healthcare industry also faces the risks of data breaches and other data privacy and security issues. A lot of personal information is shared between the patients and practitioners so as to benefit from their collaboration. Lots of people are involved and the industry has its own set of immediate priorities and pressures. Today, we have an entirely automated healthcare system, where all records are kept via electronic medium. This data includes the personal health records of patients, clinical data, warehousing and an increase in transparency means that there exist higher risk of data privacy and security.

Privacy and Security Rules of HIPAA

While global regulations like GDPR have their own impact, compliance requirements of HIPAA also have a significant impact on the healthcare industry in the USA. Healthcare providers are obliged to make sure that they are following the latest security requirements and selecting only those business associates who follow similar policies and regulations. The main HIPAA privacy and security rules are:

The Security Rule of HIPAA:

 It focuses on the security of all the personal health information collected, used, and maintained by the HIPAA-covered healthcare businesses. This rule establishes clear guidelines concerning the technical, physical, and administrative handling of the personal and healthcare information of the patients.

The security rule focuses more on covering the technical aspects of PHI (Personal Health Information). It establishes regulations and standards to guide the healthcare service providers on how they should protect patient information and maintain the confidentiality and integrity of data.

The Privacy Rule of HIPAA:

This rule sets up benchmarks to maintain the privacy of the sensitive health information of individuals which include insurance records, medical information, and other personal details. This rule also sets up boundaries on what information of the customers can or can not be used or shared with third parties without the consent of the customers.

The privacy rule focuses more on covering the operational aspects and prevents businesses and their associates from misusing the PIH of patients. It limits the type and amount of information that can be used and shared with others without getting authorization from the patients.

How Healthcare Data can be Protected?

As the cybersecurity threats concerning the healthcare industry are evolving at a critical pace, a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach must be implemented to safeguard the data of customers. Here are a few mature practices which could help keep security threats at bay for the healthcare businesses:

Train Healthcare Staff in Cybersecurity:

Whenever it comes to some security incidents, there is always an evident human element behind it. In the case of healthcare, such incidents are even more commonplace. Training staff in the matters of cybersecurity will not only equip them with the necessary knowledge to handle patient data appropriately but also prevent them from making uninformed decisions that put the business security at stake.

Implement Controls on Data and Application Access:

Restricting access to sensitive patient information and critical applications strengthen healthcare cybersecurity even further. This also ensures that only those with the required authentication will have access to sensitive data. Multi-factor authentication methods like secure PIN or password, security key, fingerprints or eye scanning may be used to make sure that the person has, in fact, the required permissions to access critical applications and user data.

Establish Controls on Data Usage:

By establishing proper controls on data usage activities, healthcare companies can flag or block malicious or risky data activity in real-time. Specific actions concerning sensitive data like uploading to the web, sending unauthorized emails, and copying data to external sources should be blocked.

Log and Monitor Access and Data Usage:

Logging and monitoring data usage and access enable business managers to assess what information was accessed or which resources and applications were used by people across the organization. This helps in keeping a check on suspicious activities and placing security controls wherever necessary. In case of a security incident, the healthcare organizations will be able to exactly pinpoint where the error occurred and find out the causes and mitigation strategies effectively.

Encrypt Data wherever Possible:

Encryption can surely be considered as one of the most important security measures for healthcare organizations. Encryption makes sure that even if hackers gain access to patient information, they won't be able to use it in any way. HIPAA recommends healthcare companies to implement strict data encryption measures based on the data flow in the organization.

Focus on Mobile Device Security:

The use of mobile devices has increased drastically over the years in the healthcare domain. Physicians use it to access patient information so that they could treat them effectively and officials might use them to process medical insurance. Without a doubt, it becomes essential to keep the security of such mobile devices in mind. A few practices to ensure mobile device security in the healthcare industry include:

  • Using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication
  • Being able to remotely lock stolen or lost devices
  • Encrypting stored data and data in transit
  • Monitoring email attachments to prevent malware
  • Prompting users to regularly update applications and operating system
  • Requiring users to install mobile security solutions and mobile device management (MDM) solutions

Eliminate the Risk of Connected Devices:

With the rise of technologies like IoT and AI, connected devices can be seen everywhere. Even in the healthcare domain, devices ranging from blood pressure monitors to scanners and cameras collect patient data and are constantly connected to the network. That is why certain steps must be taken to eliminate security risks in such devices. Some of these steps include:

  • Update the connected devices regularly and install all the security patches
  • Implement multi-factor authentication
  • Disable non-essential features before using such devices and capture only the data that is required
  • Monitor access to identify suspicious activity

Conduct Vulnerability Assessments on a Regular Basis:

Conducting regular vulnerability assessments is an important step for any proactive security strategy. Such assessments will not only identify the weak points in the organization's security infrastructure but also assess the security readiness of the employees and vendors altogether. Regular vulnerability assessment helps healthcare organizations proactively identify the potential risk elements and eliminate them to prevent costly data breaches and their detrimental impacts.

Safely Backup Sensitive Data:

Data breaches can not only expose sensitive patient information in the healthcare industry but also put data integrity and availability at risk. So, backing up data becomes a must for healthcare companies as they can't afford to lose their most valuable asset. Offsite backups of data must be made to secure the data at hand and added steps like access controls and encryption will help add extra layers of security. Apart from cybersecurity concerns, data backups can help organizations in times of disaster recovery too. 

Monitoring the Security Readiness of Business Associates

Healthcare information is constantly exchanged between various stakeholders like hospitals, insurance providers, payment agencies and others to facilitate quality service. That is why it also becomes increasingly important to assess the security readiness of all the partnering business associates. The HIPAA Omnibus rule and Survival Guide provide all the necessary details and guidelines regarding the relationships with the partner associates.

Must Read- New HIPAA Guidelines for Mobile Apps explained with Scenarios

Companies that only transmit information are not considered business associates but those which store and maintain customer PHI will be considered as business associates. A contract regarding security compliances must be set up in this case.

Major Healthcare Data Breaches

According to the major healthcare data breaches reported during the past years, the most common threats to data privacy and security include data theft, unauthorised access, improper disposal of data, data loss, hacking IT incidents and more.

BYOD Policy

The BYOD, that is, Bring Your Own Device Policy, which is being adopted at several hospitals, is a risk to the data privacy of patients and healthcare units and organisations. It is extremely important to improve data privacy and security within the various mobile health devices. While at one point doctors enjoy viewing patients information and receive clinical information via mobile apps, people are getting more and more access to data, risking security.

Cyber Attacks

Cyber attacks are a clear and present threat to every industry, including the healthcare industry. It is difficult to protect one’s assets from cyber attacks. Cyber thieves most often dig into the information related to billing and insurance records. The reason is obvious – the thieves try to find out crucial information like security numbers, credit card info, etc., that can prove beneficial to them in monetary terms.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is used widely in the healthcare industry and it has its own set of security issues. According to stats, over 13% of the cloud services used in the healthcare industry are at high risk and, about 77% of them are at medium risk.

Mistaking Compliances

Often people mistake a compliant organization for a secure one. However, more than often, compliances turn out to be a more risky affair. It gives rise to external threats to critical information.

Medical Identity Theft

Healthcare providers need to secure access to all their clinical applications since there have been cases of medical theft identity. Hackers used patients’ data to initiate their access into the information and get going with their way to more.

See also: Why Healthcare Is Becoming A Hackers Paradise


If we listen to the various security experts, these data breaches within the healthcare industry will continue for more time. The reason that we are using mobile and cloud platforms in the healthcare industry will make it more vulnerable to the attack of extruders. We have to be aware of all the risks so as to get through all the possible threats to data privacy and security for the healthcare industry.

Published on May 13, 2019
Harshit Agarwal
Written by Harshit Agarwal
Harshit Agarwal is the co-founder and CEO of Appknox, a mobile security suite that helps enterprises automate mobile security. Over the last decade, Harshit has worked with 500+ businesses ranging from top financial institutions to Fortune 100 companies, helping them enhance their security measures.
Beyond the tech world, Harshit loves adventure. When he's not busy making sure the digital realm is safe, he's out trekking and exploring new destinations.


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