Strategies for Measuring HIPAA Compliance Efforts

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Providers need to know how to measure their effectiveness at HIPAA compliance.
Providers need to know how to measure their effectiveness at HIPAA compliance.

About 40% of large health care organizations do not take the time to measure how well their HIPAA compliance measures are working, according to Brian Wells, Chief Technology Officer of the cybersecurity firm Merlin International, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia. Most are unaware if they have thwarted cyberattacks, blocked malicious emails or kept staff from releasing inappropriate information.

“If they can't report that to the board, then they may stop giving them money to do more,” Wells said.

Measuring an organization's HIPAA strategy can be challenging. It is difficult to know if efforts to thwart cyberattacks have actually prevented breaches. “When ransomware like WannaCry comes out, it may be possible to say you protected yourselves,” he said. “If nothing bad has happened in a while, you can assume you are either doing a good job or just haven't been a target.”

How are providers supposed to measure HIPAA compliance effectiveness? Here are a few strategies for determining if an organization is on the right path using both internal and external resources.


A human touch

Wells works with hospitals now, but when he was on the medical practice side, his group performed annual testing on HIPAA regulations. The test was not hard, but everyone in the practice had to pass it. This not only lets a provider know where education is slipping through the cracks, but also provides a paper trail to point to should a practice get audited.

Adam Greene, a partner with Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine, also recommends informal testing to make sure people understand their obligations under HIPAA. For example, the person in charge of HIPAA security can make a checklist to ask staff that includes questions like: “If someone wants to see something in their medical record, how would you respond?” Staff should know the patient has a right to records and the process involved in turning them over, be it filling out a form or directing the patient to the staff member who handles requests.

Another option is to assign an individual who would be accountable for walking around an office to ensure protected health information is secured properly. A few points to include would be ensuring computers are not facing toward patients; locked cabinets do not have the key hanging next to them; and people are logging out when they leave their computers.

“There could be a 10- to 20-question checklist and they can use it to see how they are doing and compare it over time,” said Marti Arvin, Vice President of Audit Strategy for CynergisTek, which is headquartered in Mission Viejo, California.

Arvin said an internal audit can be used to make sure staff members know where privacy policies are and that they are understood; whether all patients at their initial visit are provided with notices of privacy procedures; and if all of the staff members are receiving HIPAA training as they should.

Technology testing

Because health IT is constantly under attack, it would be difficult, expensive, and “voluminous” to show all of the attacks an organization has defended against, Greene said.

One option instead is to perform vulnerability scanning on a regular basis to examine if a system has unpatched software or other vulnerabilities. Another good practice is a phishing test. Here, an organization generates its own malware link and sends it to staff to see if anyone clicks.

Wells said an IT department can put in place a program that will check to see that people are only doing what they are supposed to be doing with their devices. It can also detect unmanaged devices that appear in the system. Electronic audit logs can be monitored to ensure people are not abusing their access.

Encryption is a must-have under HIPAA, and Greene said the best way to look at it is demonstrating that laptops are encrypted and will remain that way. For instance, someone with administrative rights can turn off encryption if they choose. But technical measures can be used to limit someone's ability to turn it off and to maintain compliance.

“Those things are really more to let you know how compliant you think you are,” Wells said. “For a full security audit, you are typically going to have to hire out.”

Keep it simple

Most physician practices are “dramatically under-resourced” in HIPAA staffing, Greene said. “The office administrator might be the privacy officer and maybe the security officer, too,” he said. “That is a lot of responsibilities, so providers need to give it some thought … and be careful about laying [extra responsibilities] on an office administrator who doesn't have enough time to do their regular job.”

Some of these auditing duties may need to be spread throughout an organization or hired out, but practices need to have an individual who is held accountable for auditing HIPAA policies.  “There should be some oversight,” Arvin said. “Lots of practices give the title of security officer, but don't give resources or educate them on the responsibilities of overseeing the program.”

Greene also recommends making this a long-term endeavor. Instead of trying to look at all areas of compliance at once, he recommends starting with places where an office has had problems, where similar practices have had settlements, or where the Office for Civil Rights offers guidance.

For example, an individual responsible for HIPAA compliance might first spend some time ensuring staff members are providing patients with access to their records and if they are charging the right amount for them. Then he or she could move to other areas, such as disclosure of privacy practice guidelines.

“You can ultimately look at different regulatory requirements and create a master plan for how you are going to audit them,” he said. “Prioritize some immediately and others next year or the year after because they are seemingly lower risk.”

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