Cybersecurity is a priority in all sectors of the economy, from aerospace to fashion retail. But it’s fair to say that digital security is more important in the healthcare industry than any others.

The need to protect patient data is one of the biggest challenges for all healthcare organizations, particularly given the demands made by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This act regulates how companies should handle patient data, and what happens if they fail. As we’ll see, VPNs are a key tool in meeting these regulatory demands, but they are one element among many. So let’s dive in and find out what HIPAA compliance entails.

Introducing HIPAA compliance: What is it all about?

HIPAA was first signed in 1996 under the Clinton Administration, so why is it only now becoming a pressing data protection issue for healthcare companies?

The act itself sought to ensure that patient records remained private and secure as they passed through the US healthcare system. This meant that any companies or other organizations engaged in healthcare-related sectors needed to have protocols in place to guard customer data – often to a much higher standard than would normally be required.

The difference now is that those standards have changed. With the rise of big data, the information held about patients is becoming more valuable, and big profits have started to be made by trading data about conditions and lifestyles.

At the same time, penalties for disclosing electronic Protected Health Information (or ePHI) have been made tighter, with potential fines of $50,000 per patient record should information leak out without prior consent.

Naturally, given those penalties and the potential benefits of using data properly, responsible companies have sought to create watertight systems of protection. But what is needed to meet your HIPAA requirements as Big Data becomes dominant?

A quick guide to meeting your HIPAA requirements

HIPAA requirements

We probably don’t need to spell out every single clause in HIPAA. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already well aware of what the Act contains, and what demands it makes from healthcare organizations. But it’s always handy to refresh what we know, especially before assessing some solutions that might be employed.

1. Know who is covered – HIPAA covers both Covered Entities (CE), which generally provide physical care for patients and gather data as a result of appointments and procedures. But it also covers Business Associates (BAs), which may have no direct contact with patients. So even if your company provides equipment or data services to healthcare organizations, HIPAA needs to be factored into your security measures.

2. Physical protections – All HIPAA-authorized organizations must have procedures in place which govern physical access to computers and other devices which store or access patient records. This would include things like remote working and the use of SD cards or other removable media.

3. Protection against record changes – Technical procedures have to be documented and implemented which ensure that any changes to patient ePHI are logged and transparent. This also encompasses disaster recovery processes to ensure that patient records are secured from theft or harm in emergency situations.

4. Access controls – It probably goes without saying, but a core component of HIPAA compliance regards user ID control. Anyone with access to healthcare records must be properly authorized. This also covers data protection via encryption and authentication software, which is why we’ll discuss HIPAA VPN requirements in a second.

5. Network security – If companies use extended networks or Internet-of-Things technology as part of their operations, this hardware has to be secured from external threats. Any methods of data transmission have to be protected in this way, including on and off-site storage, intranets, and physical hardware such as memory sticks or CD-ROMs.

How can I ensure that my business is HIPAA compliant?

Ensure HIPAA

The list above can seem daunting for healthcare managers, especially at first glance. However, when you break it down, the requirements stipulated by HIPAA are just a variation on standard cyber and network security.

But there is a difference to note here. Not all security systems will be HIPAA compliant, so don’t assume that you have a HIPAA compliant VPN or antivirus package installed.

As with most IT systems, security can be enhanced by putting proper policies in place. Every client facing healthcare organization must develop a Privacy Policy which states how patient data will be used, and how the organization protects that data.

Data has to be logged consistently and systematically, ensuring that any data leaks can be analyzed and that alterations to ePHI are transparent. And the danger of cyberattacks and IT failures must be risk assessed thoroughly, with recovery processes in place to reboot systems if issues arise.

Staff also have to be properly trained in email and mobile security. For instance, if patient records can be accessed remotely via smartphones, these devices should be protected by a HIPAA compliant VPN service to protect them against cyber attacks.

And whenever healthcare organizations work with partner companies, it is essential to ensure that their HIPAA practices measure up. Your company can be liable for the failures of others if you do not assess their security properly.

All of this is boilerplate IT security practice. However, as we’ve hinted already, there is a need for HIPAA compliant VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology. And sourcing this technology may not be so familiar to healthcare managers. Let’s move onto that now.

Choosing a HIPAA compliant VPN service: What you need to know

VPNs are an invaluable tool for businesses who need to become HIPAA compliant, and there are a number of reasons for this.

1. VPNs ensure reliable data encryption – When you transmit patient records internally and externally, they must always be encrypted to mitigate the risk of theft. VPNs create encrypted “tunnels” which add another layer of protection, hiding data from external attackers at all times.

2. Secure all mobile devices – Modern healthcare companies often rely on smartphones and tablets to deliver care remotely. These devices can be a major vulnerability where hackers are concerned. But with a HIPAA compliant VPN installed, data can be stored and transmitted securely to central databases.

3. Control access to Cloud databases – VPNs can form a secure link between your systems and external storage providers located in the Cloud. They provide encrypted authentication systems which are much more secure than standard gateways ever could be.

Choose the ideal HIPAA compliant VPN

So, there are obviously many advantages of sourcing a HIPAA compliant VPN service. But what HIPAA VPN requirements should you look for when making a decision?

As we mentioned above, HIPAA VPN requirements include Cloud integration, to enable secure data storage. It helps if VPNs also feature analytical capabilities, in order to audit data trails and identify possible weaknesses.

If your company relies on multiple remote devices, you’ll need a VPN that has reliable Android or iOS clients, and which specializes in securing tablets, laptops, and smartphones.

Dedicated IPs are also important. Many VPNs use “shared IPs” which are fine for everyday use but can result in access issues on sensitive healthcare networks. With dedicated IPs, you can implement whitelists easily, screening out malicious actors.

Finally, gold standard encryption is essential. Look for 256-bit AES encryption, 2048-bit RSA keys, and rock solid no logging policies. This should provide the privacy you need.

Not all VPNs are ready to meet the demands of HIPAA compliance, so choose wisely. But rest assured: having a good VPN is absolutely vital for all healthcare companies. It’s not an optional extra.