Hospitals Seeing More Patient Data Breaches

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A bi-annual survey of 250 healthcare organizations shows that the percentage experiencing a patient data breach is up. And with the growth in electronic records-keeping, more of those problems are originating from laptops and mobile devices rather than a human slip-up in handling paper documents.

Background: High-tech healthcare technology gone wild

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"Use of new technologies, in particular mobile devices in the workplace, have skyrocketed, creating new operational efficiencies and security vulnerabilities," noted the survey report, entitled the "2012 HIMSS Analytics Report: Security of Patient Data." The organization Healthcare Information and Management Systems Security also pointed out, "As mobile devices proliferate in exam rooms and administrative areas, so do the associated vectors of potential attack. Adding to this are the risks from employee negligence and organizational policies that have not kept pace with ever-changing technology."

The survey, commissioned by Kroll Advisory Solutions, asked chief information officers, health information managers, chief privacy officers and chief security officers working at 250 hospitals and medical centers about the number of data breaches they knew about over the past 12 months.

The survey found 27% of the respondents had at least one security breach over the past year, up from 19% in 2010 and 13% in 2008. The survey found 79% were attributed to employees, while most others were chalked up to actions from outsourced or contract employees. Over half of the problems were identified as "unauthorized access to information," typically the patient's name and birth date, by an individual.

While misuse of paper records, including their "improper destruction," was blamed over 40% of the time, the survey did show that computer-based security issues are multiplying fast, with the source of data attributed to actions or loss related to a laptop or handheld device about 22% of the time, up from 11% in 2010. Problems with data breaches related to third-party vendors storing healthcare data is also growing, reported this year at 10%, up from 6% in 2010. In contrast, network breaches attributed to outside attacks was about 3%.

The report says 31% of respondents indicated that information available on a portable device was among the factors most likely to contribute to the risk of a breach, up from 20% that said that in 2010 and 4% in 2008. Twenty-two percent of the respondents reporting a breach said the data was compromised when a laptop, handheld device or computer hard drive was lost or stolen, which is double the number who said this in 2010.

The report says the vast majority of healthcare institutions conduct formal risk analysis, relying mainly on federal guidelines such as CMS Meaningful Use requirements and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The goal is to comply with the mandates of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which includes funding for healthcare records, and the HITECH Act, which contains penalties for security lapses related to misuse of patient healthcare information.

The report says almost all the survey's respondents had taken steps to prepare their hospitals and medical centers for a possible federally-run Office of Civil Rights HIPAA audit. Four percent had been audited and 90% in this case indicated they'd try to prepare better in the future. Two percent of all respondents said their organization had been fined as a result of a HIPAA violation.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "Hospitals Seeing More Patient Data Breaches" was originally published by Network World.

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