The Importance of Secure Health Care Information Management

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Health care today is more digitally enabled than ever before, and the transformation has demonstrated major benefits for patients and providers alike. With patient information stored digitally, physicians can quickly access and update accurate records. The added speed of care this enables can save lives, and organizations around the world are doing all they can to ensure their digital capabilities evolve on pace with the sector as a whole.

As with any high-speed digital evolution, however, there are complexities and risks. Namely, new capabilities come with their own security issues. Hospitals and other facilities must invest heavily in secure health care information management practices, with well-trained staff members taking responsibility for putting these processes in place.

Progress without security is a risky prospect, and the fact that health care organizations store so much sensitive patient information makes this doubly true of the medical sector. To enter the field of secure health care information management, you must be prepared to interpret and apply the industry-specific data security guidelines impacting care providers, then go beyond those minimums to create cutting-edge data protection plans.

While there is an obvious challenge in taking on health data security, it’s also true that related roles will be in high demand for years to come. By assuming these responsibilities, you can become an essential member of the management information systems team at an organization. To decide if this career path is right for you, you can familiarize yourself with the tasks health information security professionals will be called on to perform, as well as the general state of data protection in the medical field.

A computer keyboard with a stethoscope and a lock.

Why Is Health Care Information Security Important?

There are numerous types of damage that can be traced back to an information security failure by an organization that deals with privileged health information. For example, if a breach or inspection failure reveals that a facility is not in compliance with data security regulations, the result could be large-scale fines and damage to your facility’s reputation.

The sheer cost associated with cleaning up after a medical data breach — repairing the affected systems, paying legal costs and fines, and more — averages $2.2 million, according to HIPAA Journal. Cybercriminals know that today’s health care providers are holding a wealth of exploitable data, making these organizations into prime targets. That means any service provider in the field that does not take security seriously enough is at risk of suffering such a costly loss.

With technology development moving quickly and a constant need for attentive security, there is ample reason for companies to invest in it. This goes beyond purchasing technology tools, though those are important. It’s also essential that health care providers and their partner organizations have people on staff who understand the best practices of data security and can keep their processes up to date as regulations and norms change.

When designing comprehensive strategies for health information security, checking those regulations is the first step. While no hospital or other care facility should settle for the bare minimum in terms of information management security policies, good strategies start with a basic understanding of the law.

What Does HIPAA’s Security Rule Require?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) Security Rule is one of the most significant pieces of legislation facing health care IT departments. HIPAA and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act jointly shape the ways providers store, share and use patients’ information, and the Security Rule deals directly with the protection of that data.

Truly comprehensive security strategies, ones that comply with and exceed regulatory stipulations, have to cover any possible ways in which data could be compromised. Since patient histories can be stored in so many ways, both as physical documents or as electronic health records (EHR), the professionals responsible for the sensitive data have a significant list of potential threats to counteract.

The HIPAA Security Rule breaks the necessary defensive measures down into four categories. Some of these are items that can be purchased and implemented, while others take the forms of practices and policies. If you intend to make a career in health care information safety, you should become familiar with all four:

Administrative Safeguards

Compliant security strategies have to start from the top, with uniform decisions about what tools are being used to store and protect sensitive health care information. A lack of clarity about safeguards could lead to gaps in the system or practices that don’t meet standards. The Security Rule’s section on administrative safeguards covers the selection and upkeep of protection measures, ensuring leaders are choosing the right systems and setting up their workforces for success with those solutions.

Determining who is responsible for security functions and responsibilities is one of the most important administrative safeguards. If the task falls to people on staff, those workers must receive adequate training to complete their duties. If a third-party partner is involved, information management leaders have to select that outside organization carefully, ensuring the company’s policies, technology and people are worthy of being trusted with authority over patients’ information.

Physical Safeguards

As digitization takes hold across industries and more data moves into electronic form, it can be easy to overlook one of the least sophisticated risk factors — people physically accessing privileged information. Even a system with advanced encryption and firewalls can be breached easily if, for example, an unauthorized person can access a computer connected to the network. Keeping individuals from breaching restricted areas of health care facilities is not only a way to protect patients and employees, but it’s also vital from a data security standpoint.

Meeting the Security Rule’s physical safeguard standards requires a combination of secure assets and comprehensive policies. Workstations should have adequate password protection, and restricted areas must be clearly marked and locked. Furthermore, there should be rules in place to prevent people from modifying or maintaining these security-critical features without authorization. Information management leaders also have to consider what becomes of their storage devices at end-of-life. Disposing of hardware that contains sensitive data must not be taken lightly.

Technical Safeguards

These are likely the types of protective measures IT professionals think of first when they envision keeping privileged health care information safe. While physical safeguards deal with how easy it is for people to get into areas that contain health information and access that data, technical safeguards deal with the countermeasures within digital systems themselves. For example, access management features fall under this category. The systems for credentialing and approving users of EHR and other sensitive data are also regulated as technical safeguards, as is encryption.

The standard requires health care organizations to have systems and privacy policies ensuring electronic health data cannot be modified or deleted without authorization, in addition to protecting it from viewing and access. There must also be solutions that help ensure the security of EHRs and other documents containing sensitive patient information when they are transmitted between care organizations. While data sharing is one of the primary benefits of digitization, it can be exploited if IT departments don’t have the right protective measures in place.

Organizational Policies and Procedures and Documentation Requirements

Accountability and compliance depend upon clear documentation of actions taken by care organization personnel. Policies and procedures around information management and security must be written and available to authorized parties on request. Organizations’ security plans and procedures are too important to be informal or malleable. They have to be filed on the record, demonstrating compliance with the other parts of the Security Rule.

Policies should not be stored away indefinitely and never accessed. This part of the Security Rule stipulates that information managers should review their plans, adding updates based on the “environmental or operational changes” that have affected their workplace since the previous check. Technology moves quickly, and new threats emerge often. Such reviews ensure that protective measures don’t fall out of date.

How Do You Make a Health Care Organization’s Data More Secure?

Turning the demands of the HIPAA security rule into a coherent and effective data management and protection policy is a challenge that leaders have to accept if their health care organizations are to avoid fines and preventable data breaches. Keeping up with new technology is important, but information systems professionals can’t ignore the more human side of data protection, delivering direction to employees and ensuring everyone has the skills needed to thrive within the programs they design.

A truly effective health care data security strategy will be comprehensive, because the threats to privileged information don’t just come from hackers, internal risks or human error. All of these dangers and more must be accounted for. As HIPAA Journal explains, the Department of Health and Human Services wants health care organizations to protect endpoints, email accounts, networks, medical devices and any other possible source of vulnerability. A weakness in even one area could lead to devastating data loss.

What Kind of Skills Are Important for Protecting Health Care Information Systems?

Information systems leaders at medical organizations are tasked with building the type of program that can stand up to threats from all angles and adequately defend the wide variety of devices and user profiles present in any health care organization. Doing this successfully requires a three-dimensional set of skills. If you are interested in taking on these responsibilities, you should make sure you possess the following traits:

  • Deep knowledge of the rules and regulations around data compliance. Failure to adhere to the HIPAA Security Rule and similar legal requirements is unacceptable in the high-risk health care industry.
  • Ability to collaborate across teams and business units. Every person at an organization is responsible for maintaining information security. This means you must get medical and administrative staff on board with policies and work beyond the IT department.
  • Forward-looking mindset. The technology used to store and access privileged health information is always evolving, as are the threats facing IT departments. To not just meet but exceed HIPAA’s requirements, security leaders at health care organizations should always be preparing for what’s next.

Information systems is the branch of IT that can determine the success or failure of security measures in health care. Personnel in these roles handle the practical side of technology use, the connections between digital innovation and everyday processes. Considering how pervasive tech tools have become in modern health care, and their continuing rise in functions such as telemedicine, there will be demand for information systems leaders for years to come.

How Can You Prepare Yourself for a Health Care Information Systems Job?

Since health care is such a highly regulated industry, and because a data breach or loss could be catastrophic, working up to a position of authority in a medical IT department will take time and effort. Your background should involve professional experience that shows you understand the unique systems present in the industry as well as the best practices for creating and maintaining security programs.

Your higher education can also prepare you for the heavy responsibilities of serving in a health care IT department. Advanced degree programs such as the online Master of Science in Management Information Systems are designed to give graduates the expertise needed to keep up with today’s IT landscape.

Management information systems is a discipline that combines leadership and cross-team coordination with a wide variety of IT competencies, security among them. The online MS in MIS program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business offers a Cyber Security Management concentration designed to equip students with skills such as threat mitigation, incident response, and information security management, all critical knowledge areas for aspiring leaders in health care data protection.

Online degree programs are designed with full-time work schedules in mind: The flexible course structure allows you to study for a diploma while also holding a role that will grant professional experience and advancement. This is one way to aim for a challenging yet rewarding role in charge of secure health care information management.

Find out if this degree is the ideal next step for your career path.

Recommended Readings:

What is Health Care Information Systems?

5 Skills Every Information Systems Student Needs to Succeed


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — Health Information Technology Integration

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — The Security Rule

HIPAA Journal — HHS Publishes Cybersecurity Best Practices for Healthcare Organizations

U.S Department of Health & Human Services — Top 10 Tips for Cybersecurity in Healthcare