What Tech Developers Need to Know about the HIPAA Security Rule

Blog / What Tech Developers Need to Know about the HIPAA Security Rule

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    Leonardo Koshoni
    Leonardo KoshoniFebruary 4, 2022

    Head of Business Analysis

    HIPAA regulations exist to protect personal health information from misuse. The laws came into effect due to the poorly managed data systems in place in the healthcare industry. 

    Insurers, employers and more could easily access a persons health information. However, the patient themselves had difficulty obtaining their own records. 

    Today, healthcare providers and insurers aren’t the only organization that can access personal health information. As we become more dependent on digital technologies, access to protected health information (PHI) has increased.

    With this comes more need for effective security measures, and HIPAA regulations must reach wider. Covered entities are no longer just doctors and insurers. Anyone that has access to, stores, or transmits PHI must adhere to HIPAA regulations.

    Digital health developments deal with PHI on behalf of their clients. As a result, it’s key that development teams understand the need to protect patient health information. Ensure your teams are familiar with HIPAA, and its requirements.

    HIPAA Security Rule

    What is the Security Rule?

    The Security Rule is a subset of HIPAA’s Privacy Rule. Both of these rules dictate the use and protection of protected health information.

    While they both discuss the rules around the safe storage and transmission of PHI, the security rule is more specific. It describes the appropriate use and disclosure of electronic protected health information. In today’s digital world, this is just one way that the HIPAA regulations have learned to adapt. 

    The Security Rule ensures that PHI is safe, no matter the format. It applies to all the same data as the Privacy Rule, meaning any individually identifiable health data. This includes:

    • Names

    • Addresses

    • Contact Numbers

    • Email Addresses

    • Symptoms or Diagnoses

    • Treatment Details

    • Prescription Information

    • Photographs

    • And more

    All covered entities must follow this set of regulations. Healthcare providers and insurers are using more technology than ever, to aid with their duties. For example, the majority of health facilities now operate using electronic health records, rather than paper records.

    However, as the healthcare industry is moving further towards digital technologies, the companies that supply these technologies must comply, too. Previously, tech companies may not have been considered as covered entities. Some now have access to the same data as healthcare providers, depending on their purpose. 

    As a result, the Security Rule is perhaps the most important rule for digital health developers to understand. Misunderstandings and errors could lead to serious breaches of PHI. Ensure that your development teams have a thorough understanding of HIPAA, and its Security Rule.

    Security Rule Safeguards

    The Security Rule does outline safeguards, to help with the protection of PHI. These safeguards are meant to guide your security measures, and help provide a framework for compliance. They should drive your analysis of your current data security, and advise on necessary safety measures. 

    • Technical:

    Technical safeguards discuss the ideal measures to protect electronic data. This includes the necessary encryption requirements, access control, transmission security and others. 

    It’s important to ensure that data is only accessible by authorized parties, and isn’t vulnerable to hackers. Developers need to implement these measures for their own storage, and any storage or transmission by their tech solution.

    • Administrative:

    Administrative safeguards outline the measures needed to ensure the security of data. Typically, this is where your compliance efforts start. Covered entities are required to identify potential vulnerabilities through risk assessments. They must then implement corrective measures

    Administrative safeguards also include security evaluations, and staff training. This is to ensure that compliance is followed throughout an entire organization. Digital health developers should be compliance trained, and projects should be evaluated regularly

    • Physical:

    Physical safeguards refer to the physical security of databases and facilities. You must analyse the access of facilities, and evaluate how you can protect data stores. Ensure there is a clear protocol for the physical access of data. 

    The safety of devices and workstations also falls under physical safeguards. For example, you may wish to have a process that prevents workers from taking devices home. You could also have specified protocol for leaving the workstations. Physical safeguards are meant to protect the physical unauthorized access of PHI.

    It is a covered entities responsibility to fully review these HIPAA safeguards against their development. Assess where you’re fulfilling the requirements, and what areas might need better security. 

    HIPAA Security Rule

    How to be HIPAA Security Rule Compliant

    The best way to ensure that your development projects are compliant throughout is through workforce training. It’s important that staff at every stage of the project understand their responsibilities. They need to have a clear understanding of how HIPAA relates to their project. 

    Compliant staff means that security measures are followed throughout the project. They can also safeguard their stage of the build, and raise privacy concerns that may have gone unnoticed. Ultimately, they can work as a filter for compliance issues as the solution is built. 

    Development teams should undergo regular training. Ensure all new hires are trained in the HIPAA Security Rule. Regular training sessions should update engineers on new legislative updates, as they come through. 

    Regular training improves retention. HIPAA can be a heavy subject, so retention is key. It should ensure that developers catch potential errors, before they snowball into breaches. 

    Risk assessments are also a critical step to maintaining HIPAA compliance. Carry out an analysis on each project. Identify the vulnerabilities. A clear list of risks allows you to implement corrective steps to prevent potential breaches.

    Again, risk assessments should be conducted regularly. This allows you to stay on top of the project, and catch mistakes before they turn to breaches. Create a clear risk assessment protocol, allowing developers to carry them out independently as needed.

    At Vertrical, we understand compliance in digital health. Our teams of compliance experts guide our projects, so we can build health tech solutions with compliance at the heart. Get in touch today to discuss how our teams can help to drive the development of your next digital health solution. 



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