Protecting PHI: Managing HIPAA Risk with Outside Consultants

 

AuJon Melling PHIthor: Jon Melling, FHIMSS

The rising complexity of healthcare, particularly as it relates to providers’ growing technical needs, is increasingly prompting healthcare organizations to seek the help of outside consultants. In engagements with healthcare entities, thought IT consultants try to minimize interaction with patient data, they often have access to protected health information (PHI). When working with HIPAA Covered Entities, consultants are treated as “business associates” and are required to comply with Privacy Rules designed to protect PHI.

Managing HIPAA compliance when engaging outside consultants requires that consultants enter into a Business Associate Agreement (BAA). The BAA must:

  • Describe the permitted and required uses of PHI by the business associate in the context of their role
  • Provide that the business associate will not use or further disclose the PHI, other than as permitted or required by the contract or by law
  • Require the business associate to use appropriate safeguards to prevent a use or disclosure of the PHI, other than as provided for by the contract

Here are several best practices to follow to ensure the protection of PHI in consulting arrangements.

FTE Mentality

During the contract period, the expectation is that consultants act as if they were an employee of the hospital or provider organization and therefore treat PHI in this manner. It is important to know that consultant business associates could be held liable or equally responsible for a PHI data breach in the same way a full-time employee could be.

Role-Based Access Rules

Limit access to PHI based on role to ensure that only the parties that need PHI have access to it. An IT strategist, for example, does not need to see live patient data. Associates leading implementation projects, on the other hand, may need access to live PHI. Typically, this occurs late in the implementation process, when the time comes to test a system with live, identifiable patient data.

Safeguard Access Points

If a hospital wants a consultant to have regular access to PHI, it would be preferable that the hospital provides the consultant with a computer or device with appropriate access authorizations and restrictions in place. Avoid the use of personal devices whenever possible. Make sure that only approved and authorized devices can be used inside the firewall and require multi-factor authentication during log-in. Avoid inappropriate access to PHI by way of shared or public data access points. Don’t allow private access to PHI where others could intervene.

Keep it Local

Don’t take PHI away from the source of use. Consultants should avoid storing PHI on personal devices, including smart phones, which are particularly susceptible to theft and loss. Devices used to store or access PHI must be registered. Best practices often include controls giving IT staff advance permission to remotely wipe or lock a stolen registered device. Avoid leaving registered devices in cars or unprotected areas.

Paper-based reports also pose threat of PHI leak. Documents you take home over the weekend, for example, could be accessed by family members, lost, or stolen. Electronic, paper, verbal and image-based PHI should all be confidently secured. Of course the regulations also relate to visual and verbal protections. When accessing PHI avoid allowing others to view your screen over your shoulder. When discussing PHI make sure only those who need to know and have appropriate authority can hear the conversation.

The healthcare industry is making great strides in establishing digital infrastructure, much of which is cloud-based, putting new onus on providers and their business partners to ensure the security of that information. No one wants to make headlines for the latest data breach, least of all the IT consultants hired by providers to help guide their data management efforts. Rigorous attention to HIPAA Privacy Rule guidelines is not only required – it’s imperative to maintaining trust in the healthcare ecosystem.

Learn more about Jon Melling’s work as part of our Strategic Consulting & Advisory team.