Understanding the Cloud: What Does HIPAA Compliance Really Mean?

HIPAA Compliance and the Cloud: a Common Source Of Confusion

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If you’ve ever wandered into a health-adjacent conversation accidentally on the Internet, you may have observed that, in general, people do not really understand what HIPAA is, how it works, or to whom it applies.

Of course, within the healthcare and insurance industries, the concept is more widely understood, since it’s integral to job performance, and failure to comply can have serious consequences. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some comprehension gaps even there.

In particular, when it comes to HIPAA-compliant technology, many healthcare professionals still find themselves at a loss. What exactly makes cloud technology HIPAA-compliant?

At a time when cloud-based programs are more widely used in healthcare IT, patient treatment, and other functions, this is a crucial question and the answer isn’t entirely clear. In order to be accepted as HIPAA-compliant, cloud platforms have to fully address a range of potential privacy issues.

Covered Entities and Business Associates

Within health IT, one of the more widely misunderstood issues with regard to HIPAA compliance is the role played by covered entities or business associates in handling electronic health data. Though covered entities or business associates can use cloud-based technologies for storage or processing, it is not enough to be classified as such.

Even when these types of organizations sign a compliant business associate agreement, they still need to fulfill a number of other requirements. In particular, they have to adhere to the other requirements established by the Security Rule and should, in most cases, enter an additional Service Level Agreement to address more specific concerns.

Consider Access Issues

One major reason that organizations choose to invest in cloud-based software is that the cloud offers a degree of mobility that more traditional programs can’t. Because of the security concerns associated with HIPAA, however, cloud-based health tools aren’t always as flexible.

That’s why it’s crucial for healthcare organizations to weigh access issues when they invest in new tools. Firms that have had to tie themselves in knots to achieve HIPAA compliance likely can’t offer many access options, but companies like Box, which has prioritized HIPAA compliance, can offer mobile PHI access for the medical professional on the go – without compromising security.

A Lifecycle Approach

As healthcare professionals generally understand, security is a complicated issue when it comes to healthcare information. Data can be more vulnerable when it’s not in use, or even when it’s virtually obsolete – yet that doesn’t nullify our responsibility to that data.

As such, one thing that healthcare organizations should consider when choosing cloud providers is how they approach data security throughout the lifecycle. When data gets cycled out, do providers wipe it fully from their system, or simply change storage practices to a less well-protected interface, such as when an old-school medical office carelessly tosses outdated patient records in a dumpster?

It’s vital for you to choose a provider who won’t let sensitive information slip through the cracks. As the responsible party, your organization can’t afford to take risks with a non-compliant service provider, so it’s essential to assess potential platforms with care before you commit to working with them.

Failure to do so could leave your organization buried under fines because when one of your cloud providers fails to protect the data, your reputation (and financial health) are on the line. As it relates to IT, HIPAA compliance is a complicated issue, and you can’t afford to get it wrong.

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