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4 steps to protect patient privacy you can implement right now

Regulatory compliance, internal audits, secure software, and patient education are all foundational to protect patient privacy.

a Black doctor using a tablet to take steps to protect patient privacy

At a Glance

  1. A comprehensive understanding of regulations like HIPAA is the foundation for safeguarding patient privacy.
  2. The medical billing process is a vulnerable point for data leaks; selecting secure, tailored software solutions and educating staff can mitigate this risk.
  3. Educating patients on their privacy rights and giving them transparent, secure ways to access their information builds trust.

In the age of telehealth, online patient portals, and digital record-keeping, the odds of a private health information (PHI) leak are at an all-time high. As a doctor or practice manager, it is critical to ensure patient medical information is secure, not only for patient safety, but also for legal and compliance reasons. Luckily, there are several ways to protect patient data from leaks and hacks. 

This article will walk you through ensuring patient privacy at your practice. From learning the regulatory codes from front to back to beefing up your digital security strategy, here are 4 steps you can take to protect your patients. 

1. Ensure regulatory compliance

The very first step in protecting patient privacy is knowing the laws and regulations. You’re likely familiar with the basics and with using an electronic health record (EHR) to authorize and submit PHI requests for new or existing patients. However, knowing these policies thoroughly and confidently is essential to forming a robust information security system. 

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

Originally written into law in 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was created to define stringent rules around who has access to a patient’s medical information in the United States. HIPAA also applies to US citizens who receive healthcare outside the country, so even if you practice outside the US, you should be familiar with this policy. 

Under HIPAA, most forms of information exchange require patient authorization. There are a few cases in which you can share information without the patient’s official sign-off, most notably in emergencies or situations where the patient is incapacitated. If law enforcement inquires about a patient’s records, you can give limited information without the patient's approval. 

Otherwise, most medical information exchanges require the patient’s explicit permission. Consider enrolling your employees in an annual HIPAA compliance course to keep up with changes in regulation. After all, even an accidental HIPAA violation can be costly. Fines can be as hefty as $50,000, and some practitioners may even lose their licensure. 

How to run a compliance audit

As a healthcare practitioner in the U.S., you may be selected for an audit by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Be sure your practice is prepared by running your own audits and assessments. 

Regular compliance audits are critical to ensure that your patients’ information stays private. Routinely check your policies and keep your team updated on regulations to show your patients that you consider their privacy an active priority — which can lead to increased trust and even patient referrals

Your internal audit should be thorough. Check that every person who touches medical information knows the law, that every piece of software you use to process medical information is in compliance, and that no violations have happened in the recent past. 

You must also perform risk assessments of each stage of information exchange. If you identify any weak spots in your security strategy, form a plan immediately to strengthen them. Checking on your processes periodically will help prevent accidental violations. 

2. Implement secure medical billing software

One potential vulnerability in your practice is your medical billing process. Medical billing creates a lot of paperwork — the patient’s medical information is accessed when the biller checks their insurance eligibility, when medical records are coded into billing information, and again when the bill is sent. Each step of this process could lead to a potential privacy breach, so you must choose a safe and secure medical billing provider. Automation can also reduce the number of touchpoints and therefore the risk.

Finding a medical billing service that will keep your patient’s data private is less daunting than it may seem. When shopping around for billing services, consider your practice’s specific needs. If you serve a younger population, you’ll want robust software that integrates seamlessly with your digital patient portal; if you have many patients with disabilities, look for highly-rated software for accessibility and ADA compliance. 

Once you’ve determined the services you need the most, research the security credentials of your potential billing services. Thoroughly review their history with client data and analyze the privacy and security measures they advertise. This is especially important when your provider strongly focuses on online patient payments; choose a provider whose cybersecurity you can trust. 

After choosing the right software for your practice, it’s time to train your staff on the new programs. One study found that over 70% of HIPAA violations are caused by unintentional errors, so ensure that your team won’t accidentally expose a patient’s PHI. Educate every staff member on properly using and handling your chosen software and encourage them to continue learning about privacy best practices. 

3. Choose strong, modern patient data solutions

Patient data has a long lifecycle. You start collecting their data before they even step into your office: insurance eligibility, intake forms, and online registration forms create a patient’s footprint early on. Your practice must safeguard their PHI every step of the way. 

In addition to choosing inherently secure software, you want to ensure your onsite cybersecurity is robust. Collaborate with your IT team to set up protective firewalls and intrusion detection systems so the admins are immediately notified of a potential breach. Also, ensure that all sensitive patient data is encrypted so an outside actor wouldn’t be able to access the information even if they make their way into your system. 

When you conduct your routine compliance audits, spend a generous amount of time auditing your cybersecurity measures. Your software of choice should allow you to restrict certain staff members’ access to patient records based on their roles; use this feature judiciously. 

A team member should also monitor all requests for patient information to spot any potential violations as soon as they happen. Finally, implement data access logs as a part of your cybersecurity best practices to hold all staff accountable. 

4. Educate patients about their privacy rights

Finally, proactively teach your patients their right to privacy. For you, HIPAA is a part of your daily work, and many of your patients only have to think about it a couple of times a year. When you know that your patients are about to exchange or access their medical information, set aside some time to let them know who does and does not have the right to view them. 

Also, take some time to let your patients know what your practice does to protect their information. Communicate your privacy policies early on, and don’t hesitate to repeat them when applicable. Actively showing your patients that you care about their security is a surefire way to gain their trust

Your ultimate goal is to empower your patients and to do so, you must be sure that they can access their data quickly and easily. Patients want ease and transparency when accessing their medical information, so be sure you have plenty of ways for them to engage with your practice online. This way, patients can monitor and audit who is accessing their information anywhere and anytime. 

In an era where data breaches and privacy infringements can have far-reaching consequences, securing patient information is more important than ever. By delving into the intricacies of regulatory compliance, strengthening internal auditing procedures, selecting secure software solutions, and educating patients about their privacy rights, you can fortify your digital infrastructure. 

Patient privacy is critical for a healthy independent practice. As the digital realm continues to shape the future of medicine, this holistic approach to privacy is not just about safeguarding data but also about fostering a culture of respect and empowerment for your patients.

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Jean Lee, managing editor at The Intake

Jean Lee is a content expert with years of journalism and marketing experience — along with a constant passion to help and engage others through storytelling. She is the managing editor at The Intake, and is excited to support independent practices with content, insights, and resources that help them thrive.

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