Notice the title doesn’t say HIPAA Security and Privacy. Nor does it have any of the words – HITECH, Omnibus Rule, Meaningful Use etc. That is the point of this post.

Let us start with a question…  I am sure many of you like me are routine visitors to the blogosphere and social media sites (especially LinkedIn group discussions) to get a pulse of the happenings in Information Security and Privacy. How often do you see posts or discussions around compliance versus discussions focused squarely on risk, meaning risk to the organization or to the patients if their health information was compromised by one or the other means?

Compliance (risk of non-compliance) is only one of the risks  and in our view, should not be the primary driver for any Information Security or Privacy program. In fact, we often like to say that Compliance should be a natural consequence of  good risk management practices.

Having lived and watched Health Information Security and Privacy for nearly ten years, I am not surprised by this trend at all. Rather, I am looking forward to a day where we talk more about safeguarding the security and privacy of patient data and less about preparing for an OCR Audit. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t worry about the latter. In fact, I’ll say that one will very likely not have to worry about the OCR or any audit for that matter if one’s real intent is to safeguard security and privacy of patient information. The real intent and objective are extremely important because they shape our thinking and how we go about executing our efforts.

I think  Security and Privacy programs in Healthcare can be a lot more effective (and likely even cost efficient) if they were to prioritize the objectives in the following order:

  • Patient Care and Safety – In most discussions on security, we tend to focus solely on confidentiality of patient information and less so on integrity and availability of the information. When we begin to think of all three security components in equal measure, it is easier to appreciate how a security incident or breach could impact patient care and safety. With the increasing adoption of EHRs, it is very likely that many health-care providers are relying solely on electronic versions of the patient records in one or more EHRs. It is possible that a security incident or breach could result in the patient record not being “available” for access by the physicians who may need to look at the patient’s treatment history before providing the patient with some urgent or emergency care.  In another possible scenario, it is possible that the security breach resulted in compromise of the integrity of the patient record itself, in which case there may be a chance that physicians end up misdiagnosing the patient condition and not providing the right treatment. Such cases were probably unlikely in a world of paper records but they are not inconceivable in a world of electronic records. These issues can result from both malicious and unintentional circumstances.
  • Patient Privacy and Loss of Trust – The impact of a healthcare privacy breach doesn’t need much discussion. The impacted individuals can face severe and lasting financial and reputational harm which can make for a very painful experience. This in turn could result in the provider losing the valuable trust of its customers. 
  • Business Risk – Healthcare businesses could face Tort or Class Action lawsuits from either of the two previous scenarios.  And then of course, there is the possibility of patients turning to competitors especially when they have access to multiple providers where they live. In effect, health care organizations could face substantial losses to their bottomlines and given the increasing competitive nature of the industry, this could put business sustainability of the organizations at risk.
  • Risks of Non-Compliance – Finally of course, there is the risk of non-compliance with industry or government regulations. Non-compliance could leave healthcare organizations facing considerable civil and possible criminal fines as well as recurring expenses from having to comply with OCR resolution agreements for example. In most instances however, the impact of non-compliance fines and expenses are only temporary in nature lasting a few years or more. On the other hand, the impact of the previous three risks could be much more significant and longer lasting.

Until we think of security and privacy as being central to patient care/safety and the business/clinical culture, it is our view that many programs will likely falter and not deliver the intended results. The new era of digital healthcare requires healthcare organizations to think of security and privacy as a business or customer issue and not something that they need to address only for compliance purposes.

In a following post, we’ll specifically discuss some examples of why thinking compliance first will not get us very far in managing health information security risks.

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