Guest Post: Staying HIPAA Compliant When Using Smartphones

Thursday, July 5th, 2018
This post was written by Brad Spannbauer

Smartphones in Healthcare

Introducing smartphones into a healthcare environment also brings new security risks, especially when devices are used to create, receive, maintain or transmit ePHI.

Smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in clinical settings. When compared with the likes of pagers, smartphones offer many benefits, such as improved communication and collaboration, increased mobility, and more advanced security and privacy features. However, despite these benefits, introducing smartphones into a healthcare environment also brings new security risks, especially when devices are used to create, receive, maintain or transmit electronic protected health information (ePHI).

The compact size and portability of smartphones is what makes them so convenient for on-the-go healthcare professionals, but it is also this which makes them particularly susceptible to loss or theft, which can lead to data breaches.

According to a Ponemon study, 90 percent of healthcare organizations have been affected by at least one data breach, and nearly half have had more than five data breaches. While malicious activity continues to be the leading cause of these attacks, employee negligence and lost or stolen devices are the primary instigators.

Eliminating the security and privacy threats introduced by smartphones isn’t easy, but by addressing the following key areas, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) covered entities can mitigate the risks and significantly reduce the likelihood of a data breach occurring.

Put a stop to non-secure communication

In today’s cyber crime ridden world, organizations must be proactive in guarding every aspect of their digital infrastructure, and maintaining secure communications is a key part of this process. Non-secure applications such as email or native text messaging apps are inherently risky due to a lack of security features and privacy controls, which ultimately render them non-compliant under the rules of HIPAA. Instead of using unsecure tools, healthcare providers should invest in secure communication solutions that are designed to withstand the rigors and regulations of healthcare.

Educate your workforce

Research by IBM suggests that 95 percent of all security incidents in 2016 involved human error—misaddressed emails, weak passwords and falling prey to phishing schemes are prime examples of how data breaches can occur due to carelessness or lack of proper education. Additionally, the rise in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) means employees are more frequently using devices both inside and outside the office, which naturally increases the risks of a device being lost, stolen, or accessed by an unauthorized third party. Regular staff training should therefore be a top priority for any organization that allows its employees to use a mobile device for work purposes. Ultimately the onus is on employers to ensure employees understand their responsibilities, and to provide the tools to allow them to carry out their jobs effectively and securely.

Follow OCR’s advice

In recognition of the risks associated with increased usage of smartphones in clinical settings, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued guidance for HIPAA covered entities who use mobile devices to create, access or store ePHI. The guide offers the following tips:

  • Implement policies and procedures regarding the use of mobile devices in the workplace—especially when used to create, receive, maintain, or transmit ePHI.
  • Consider using Mobile Device Management (MDM) software to manage and secure mobile devices.
  • Install or enable automatic lock/logoff functionality.
  • Require authentication to use or unlock mobile devices.
  • Regularly install security patches and updates.
  • Install or enable encryption, anti-virus/anti-malware software, and remote wipe capabilities.
  • Use a privacy screen to prevent people close by from reading information on your screen.
  • Use only secure Wi-Fi connections.
  • Use a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN).
  • Reduce risks posed by third-party apps by prohibiting the downloading of third-party apps, using whitelisting to allow installation of only approved apps, securely separating ePHI from apps, and verifying that apps only have the minimum necessary permissions required.
  • Securely delete all PHI stored on a mobile device before discarding or reusing the mobile device.
  • Include training on how to securely use mobile devices in workforce training programs.

Remember, at the end of the day, if you allow ePHI to be stored on mobile devices, some of those devices inevitably will be lost or stolen. And if that ePHI is not adequately protected through strong encryption along with robust access controls as described above, you will have a reportable data breach on your hands. So plan accordingly.

As devices and applications become more technically advanced, and as more and more healthcare organizations leverage the advantages of smartphones over traditional tools, smartphone usage is only set to increase. To realize the benefits, however, it is critical that the security of mobile devices is reviewed and updated regularly, and policies are modified when necessary. Convenience should never come before compliance.

About the Author:

Brad Spannbauer

Brad Spannbauer

A 20 year industry veteran, Brad Spannbauer currently oversees product strategy and planning, and provides direction and market leadership for j2 Cloud Connect’s worldwide business as their Senior Director of Product Management. His focus in the healthcare and legal verticals led to Brad’s involvement with the j2 Cloud Services™ compliance team, where he leads the team as the company’s HIPAA Privacy and Compliance Officer. Learn more about our HIPAA Compliant Fax Solutions.

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