Best Practices for Keeping Your HIPAA Compliance Efforts Up to Date

By Ken Lynch


The privacy of people’s healthcare information has long been a hot topic in the country and around the world. If sensitive healthcare information were to end up in the wrong hands, people’s privacy could be affected in many different ways.

HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and was enacted to define parameters for securing people’s health information. This legislation stipulated the kind of information that should be protected, along with specific parameters that establish HIPAA compliance.

Simply put, many different types of businesses need HIPAA compliance when coming in contact — both directly and indirectly — with health information.

HIPAA compliance includes meeting necessary safeguard provisions, carrying out a risk assessment, and implementing a continuous risk management process.

What Is HIPAA Compliance?

HIPAA was initially established in 1996 to protect the personal health information of people who were moving from one job to another. Because employers and many other businesses handle sensitive healthcare data, the need to keep this data secure at all times was apparent early on.

HIPAA eventually evolved into a security rule that covers the access, communication, and storage of healthcare data. The law specifically defined Personal Healthcare Information (PHI) as any information concerning the health status, provision of healthcare services, and payment for such services that can be linked to an individual.

HIPAA requires that any entities handling PHI become compliant in the areas of:

  • Administrative safeguards – policies and procedures
  • Physical safeguards – access control to data storage
  • Technical safeguards – communication systems that transmit PHI

Because of the new guidelines that HIPAA puts in place, almost any organization that comes in contact with personal healthcare information, whether online or in physical copy, needs to ensure they’re HIPAA compliant.

This includes healthcare providers, software providers for healthcare organizations, audit firms that work with HIPAA-compliant businesses, and even payment processing firms that provide services to companies that handle PHI.

HIPAA compliance casts a wide net to cover not only healthcare firms but also all third-party providers of those firms. This is necessary because it only takes one weak link in the system to expose the entire chain to data breaches.

Why HIPAA Compliance Is Important

HIPAA compliance isn’t just an additional requirement for your business; it’s an operational necessity.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a specific department that helps enforce HIPAA compliance. In recent years, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) made HIPAA compliance even more critical for businesses.

With the overall goal being the protection of personal health information, violating HIPAA provisions can result in both hefty fines and possible jail time.

HIPAA provisions have been consolidated under the Omnibus act, which also includes requirements set forth by HITECH.

Continuous Monitoring for HIPAA Compliance

Being HIPAA compliant features three main pillars – administrative, physical, and technical safeguards.

Under the administrative guidelines, businesses handling PHI need to establish a risk assessment plan, followed by a risk management plan. Risk assessment involves analyzing the risks that your systems face daily.

The central pillar of HIPAA compliance is important because it determines the implementation framework that you’ll follow for your entire security plan moving forward.

In other words, the policies and procedures you establish to become HIPAA compliant will affect all other elements of your information security plan.

Risk Analysis as Part of HIPAA Compliance

Analyzing risk (as part of your risk assessment framework) includes evaluating the possibility of a risk occurring, as well as the impact it may have on personal health information.

In light of these risks, the next step should involve implementing security measures that will address the risks you face, followed by documenting these measures as part of a formal process for establishing compliance.

After all risk factors are identified and addressed, the last step in risk analysis will involve maintaining a continuous plan for security protections moving forward.

Cybersecurity threats to personal health information continue to evolve daily.

Attackers frequently review their strategies and come up with innovative ways of breaching your security systems.

To keep up and remain compliant, you need a continuous risk analysis plan. This involves carrying out regular reviews of your records and evaluating the effectiveness of all security measures in place.

Continuous Compliance Makes Risk Management Easier

An essential component of risk management is constant monitoring and compliance. Risk management will primarily involve the regular monitoring of your security environment and being one step ahead of any emergent threats.

Why is continuous compliance with HIPAA important?

It gives you real-time visibility into your security practices so you can remain equipped to handle new risks.

Not only will you be able to detect risks in a timely fashion, you’ll also be able to implement an effective response that minimizes downtime and keeps PHI secure.

Continuous compliance also makes it easier for you to protect electronic PHI from unauthorized tampering. HIPAA compliance guidelines require all covered entities to have integrity controls in place, which specify that sensitive health information should be free of alteration, tampering, or being destroyed.

Continuous compliance is more effective than constant monitoring.

This is because monitoring may reveal that you’re lagging in a specific area of your security framework (such as updating a security patch), but this doesn’t mean you’ll take active steps toward fixing the problem.

On the other hand, continuous compliance involves maintaining a HIPAA-compliant environment by immediately addressing any shortfalls in your systems.

Developing an Action Plan for Continuous HIPAA Auditing

While you may be compliant with all HIPAA guidelines, you need to establish a method for proving this compliance.

Proof of compliance can be done through a continuous auditing plan. Such a plan should involve documentation demonstrating that you found various risks and implemented steps toward mitigating them.

The audit can also be used both internally and externally to provide proof of compliance at any given time.

To carry out an effective audit, you need automated tools to help you connect between your continuous monitoring plan and relevant documentation. This connection gives a holistic overview of all your monitoring and compliance efforts.

The benefits provided by an appropriate automated tool will put you on the path towards faster and more efficient monitoring practices. Seek out automated tools that have control management features, record-keeping platforms, and streamlined workflows.

Concerned that your employees don’t value compliance enough?

Learn strategies to reinforce the importance of compliance in this episode of The BizLibrary Podcast:

The BizLibrary Podcast

Ken Lynch is an enterprise software startup veteran, who has always been fascinated about what drives workers to work and how to make work more engaging. Ken founded Reciprocity to pursue just that. He has propelled Reciprocity’s success with this mission-based goal of engaging employees with the governance, risk, and compliance goals of their company in order to create more socially minded corporate citizens. Ken earned his BS in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT.