Five steps to improved HIPAA compliance

As hospitals, clinics and health care professionals know, their industry is among the most strictly regulated in the United States. Included in the complex set of health care laws is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA requires health care organizations to adhere to national standards for electronic health care transactions, code sets, health identifiers and security. Additionally, Congress incorporated mandated provisions to HIPAA to ensure privacy protection for individually identifiable patient health information.

Given the importance placed on HIPAA, it is vital to ensure your health care organization is compliant. Below are five steps to help you achieve compliance with HIPAA regulations.

1) Develop privacy and security policies

Health care organizations need to develop, adopt and implement policies to ensure the privacy and security of patients' protected health information (PHI). Included in this documentation should be what actions should be taken when a breach occurs. Comprehensive policies also should include policies for email and mobile communications, with patients, between employees and with business partners. In most organizations, it may be beneficial to appoint an employee or group of employees and privacy and security officers. These people will serve as resources for the organization and should have extensive knowledge of HIPAA regulations.

2) Educate your employees

It is essential for health care organizations of any size to offer official training and ongoing communication to employees regarding HIPAA privacy standards and policies, particularly regarding permissible uses and disclosures of PHI. New employees need to be trained immediately, and training refresher courses should be offered to all employees on at least a yearly basis, or whenever policies are updated. Additionally, HIPAA requires ongoing awareness communications and activities be provided to all employees.

3) Work with compliant contractors

When you share PHI with vendors, business partners and contractors, you trust them to uphold HIPAA privacy standards. If they do not, your organization will likely share liability for their violations. Before working with third-party entities, make sure they are also HIPAA compliant regarding privacy and security, employee training and risk management.

4) Conduct regular risk management assessments

Through regular risk assessments, health care organizations can identify vulnerabilities to PHI and remediate identified issues or revise gaps in policy. If these measures are taken on a regular basis, it can help to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of your organization's PHI and avoid significant administrative, technical and physical breaches. Additionally, it is vital to conduct other activities to help manage risk, including tracking mobile devices and computers with access to PHI, monitoring big data analytics performed by your organization, keeping anti-malware updated and applying security patches when necessary.

5) Provide patient education and access to records

Health care organizations must correctly publish and distribute a Notice of Privacy Practices to all patients. Additionally, an acknowledgement of receipt should be obtained from every patient, and updated whenever policies are revised. The notice should also be published to your organization's website.

Patients also have the right to access their PHI within 30 days of making a request. Full records must be provided, rather than just a summary.

6) Work with an attorney

If your organization is in need of guidance in fulfilling your compliance with HIPAA or other health care laws, contact an experienced attorney. In addition to advising regarding policies and procedures, your legal representative can become vital if you or your organization is being investigated for a HIPAA violation.