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How to Ensure Your Medical Document Storage Complies With Privacy Laws

Medical records are an essential component of safe and effective healthcare. These documents explain the details of a patient's medical history; clinical findings, diagnostic test results, pre and postoperative care, their progress, medication, and much more.

Published on:
April 7, 2022

Medical records are an essential component of safe and effective healthcare. These documents explain the details of a patient's medical history; clinical findings, diagnostic test results, pre and postoperative care, their progress, medication, and much more. Protecting patients' privacy and ensuring that their health information is secure is a core requirement of the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs (also known as "Meaningful Use" Programs in the United States).

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) created standards for the storage and disposal of protected health information (PHI), including information found in medical records. Healthcare providers and businesses are required to comply with HIPAA, not only to ensure they are compliant with privacy laws that protect confidential patient information, but also to avoid costly fines and lawsuits.

According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), as of February 28th 2022, OCR has imposed civil money penalties in 106 cases resulting in a total dollar amount of $131,392,632.00. These include investigated complaints against organizations such as national pharmacy chains, major medical centers, group health plans, hospital chains, and small provider offices.

Below are some key things to know about medical storage and how to help comply with privacy laws.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule

The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards for the protection of certain health information. The Privacy Rule addresses how Protected Health Information can be used and disclosed, as well as standards for individuals' privacy rights. This rule also helps individuals control and understand:

•    How their health information is used and shared

•    Their rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records as well as

•    Their right to request corrections to their health records.

Organizations must ensure that these rules are adhered to and taken seriously as civil and criminal penalties can result for those who are found to be in violation of HIPAA and the Privacy Rule.

Ensuring Compliance with Privacy Laws

Here is how to ensure your medical document storage complies with privacy laws:

Risk analysis and management

The administrative safeguards provisions of the HIPAA Security Rule require covered entities to perform risk analysis as part of their security management processes. Performing a risk analysis helps you to determine the security measures that are reasonable and appropriate for your institution or organization, depending on its categorization of covered entities.

The risk analysis also affects the implementation of all the safeguards contained in the HIPAA Security Rule. Your organization should evaluate the likelihood and impact of potential risks. After evaluating and establishing the likelihood of potential risks, you need to implement measures that mitigate or reduce the likelihood of those risks occurring.

Provide Guidelines and Policies for Data Management

If a practice or a healthcare facility is going to ensure effective and efficient compliance with privacy laws, it is critical to establish and provide organizational guidelines and policies for data management. These guidelines and policies should be focused on preventing data mismanagement. Guidelines and policies can address the following:

•    Specify devices that can be used to access patient data
•    Restrict the number of people or specific people that are required to access such data
•    Identify the appropriate time and place that data can be accessed
•    Maintain a “need-to-know” approach toward healthcare data
•    Prioritize discretion when transmitting patient information and sensitive data
•    Utilize approved communication means for professional discourse

Data-driven training and retraining

HIPAA requires that organizations handling PHI and Personal Identifiable Information (PII) train and prepare their employees to handle information properly. Thus, your organization is required to train all workforce members on your privacy policies and procedures, as necessary and appropriate for employees to carry out their functions. Regardless of the methodology your institution applies, data security and privacy training should be consistent, clear, and accountable. You should remember that first-day orientation, as well as annual meetings, are not enough to effectively protect PHI and PII.

Training needs to be updated and repeated regularly, and should be backed by your organization's ethos in order to provide employees with the guidance they need. For instance, according to the HIPAA Journal, nearly 500,000 documents and records are compromised every day because of mobile devices. If you find out that your employees routinely access patient data from a mobile device, you can target training to restrict or prioritize data access from these devices.

Keeping Health Information Secure and Private with an Electronic Health Record (EHR)

An Electronic Health Record (EHR) is an effective way to eliminate data breaches in your organization. Organizations are responsible for taking the necessary steps to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and the availability of information that is contained in their EHR system. Having an EHR also affects the types and combinations of safeguards that are needed to keep your patients' health information confidential.

Conducting risk assessments of your EHR systems benefits your organization in a number of ways:

•    Ensures compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule & Meaningful Use Requirements
•    Identifies vulnerabilities in your EHR and protects against them
•    Upholds and maintains your patients’ trust that their PHI and data are secure

To keep up with attack advancements and potential EHR vulnerabilities, in addition to ensuring your evolving IT environment maintains an effective level of security, it is important to continually assess and reinforce your EHR system.  

Smart Medical Document Storage Software

Technologies that streamline the workflow of a medical business are rapidly grabbing the attention of numerous businessowners. Highly-efficient solutions, such as  medical document storage and management software or systems. can help your organization comply with the requirements of HIPAA, in addition to other government or regulatory requirements.

Smart software can redact or block PII based on the permissions granted to the user accessing patient information. If the software is properly configured and given specific permission guidelines, it will allow or block specific attempts to access the data on the basis of it’s configurations. Software makes it easy to sort, understand, and organize messy, unstructured medical documents while maintaining high levels of security and privacy.

When to Dispose of Patient Records

HIPAA has not set forth standards on how long medical records should be maintained. Rather, state laws usually govern when PHI can be destroyed. Under some state law, physicians must keep patient records for 7 years after their last visit or until the patient reaches age 21 (if under 18 years). This makes it important for healthcare providers to have HIPAA-compliant record storage in order to maintain patient information for the required time periods in a private and fully compliant method.

Jenna Earnshaw
Head of Revenue at Wisedocs

Jenna Earnshaw is the Head of Revenue at Wisedocs. She has a strong expertise in go-to-market strategy and driving pipeline for tech companies. In her free time, you can find Jenna reading, podcasting, and supporting the startup community.

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