Healthcare organizations still too lax on security

Data breach at Community Health is symptom of broader problem, security experts say

The data breach at Community Health Systems that exposed the names, Social Security numbers and other personal details on more than 4.5 million people is a symptom of the chronic lack of attention to patient data security and privacy within the healthcare industry.

For more than 10 years, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has required all entities handling healthcare data to implement controls for protecting the data, yet many organizations pay little more than glancing attention to the rules because of the relatively lax enforcement of the standards.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has begun cracking down recently on hospitals and other healthcare entities that have suffered security and privacy breaches. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 introduced some significant penalties for noncompliance with data security requirements.

Yet, many health organizations don't see data security as a major concern until a breach. So far this year, healthcare entities have reported to the HHS at least 150 incidents involving compromises of personal data.

"The industry has a long culture of not recognizing the incredible value of healthcare information," to those who want to misuse it, said Deborah Peel, a physician and founder of the advocacy group Patient Privacy Rights.

Apart from a lack of real enforcement of any of the privacy and security provisions in HIPAA, the industry has also suffered from the lack of an auditing requirement for security, Peel said.

HIPAA doesn't require even large healthcare organizations to submit to a third-party audit of their data security controls. "Only if you have a breach or someone reports you are you likely to come to the attention of HHS," Peel said.

Companies in other industries, such has financial services, have to go to great lengths to externally validate their systems and provide audit reports on request, she said. "There is no such requirement in healthcare," even though the information handled by the industry is highly sensitive and far more valuable in the underground market than financial data.

"There is a lot of catching up to do. A lot of public trust is going to be lost," before real change happens in the industry, Peel said.

Things will probably have to get worse before it starts getting better, said Phil Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software, a security vendors.

"It will take a Target type of episode where a healthcare provider and their C-suite face demise due to the damage they have caused to their entire population of patients to get some providers to wake up," and invest in real security, Lieberman said.

The unfortunate reality is that most healthcare providers have little concern for having IT security, he noted. "There is no incentive for them to invest, nor is there any material consequence for their failure to protect their infrastructure. HIPAA has had little to no effect in protecting patient data."

Read more about healthcare it in Computerworld's Healthcare IT Topic Center.

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