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How to maintain patient confidentiality in a connected care ecosystem

We all understand the importance of confidentiality in the healthcare industry, but maintaining a working knowledge of current and projected security threats can be difficult when you’re pressed for time. How does your clinic fare in protecting the private details of your patients, staff and allied networks? When was the last time you updated your privacy policy and connected care ecosystems to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by today’s medical practices?

Exploring patient confidentiality in healthcare

The risk of hacking and the subsequent sale of patient details is very real. Healthcare records are an extremely desirable commodity on the Dark Web, where patient information is bought and sold alongside drugs, weapons and financial details. Combined with passwords, credit card numbers, bank accounts and identity documents, medical profiles can be used for identity theft and fraud attempts. 

While we would like to assure you that patient information hacks are rare, attacks on health information technology systems have increased 125% over the last 5 years. A scarier statistic pertains to the thriving contract market; as 10,000 hack-for-hire job postings are currently circulating Dark Web boards, potentially daring criminally motivated minds to bypass your security and steal the sensitive specifics you’re charged to protect. 

Who’s at risk?

These types of attacks pose a risk to both individuals and organisations whose responsibility it is to house and protect the data. For hackers, everyone is a target; including recent reports of websites selling the Medicare numbers of Australians as well as major organisational-level breaches occurring (such as what happened to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, which had more than 550,000 of its customers’ personal and medical details exposed online and leaked to an anonymous hacker in late 2016).

Am I liable for data breaches?

Yes. Healthcare organisations and individual clinicians have a legal obligation to keep the details of patients, staff and attached persons safe and secure. Currently, data breaches carry heavy fines for healthcare business owners and soon the Australian Government will also be introducing mandatory data breach reporting. 

Therefore, it’s crucial that all people involved with the collection and storage of personal and medical information fully understand their responsibility to keep it safe. Clinics must consider all factors when designing their patient information systems, and ensuring said systems are impenetrable to security threats and vulnerabilities. We’ve explored some of the most effective ways to maintain patient confidentiality so that patients are empowered and privacy is prioritised.

Four actionable ways Australian clinics can maintain patient confidentiality

1. Develop a comprehensive patient privacy and confidentiality policy 

If you intend to collect, store and discuss sensitive patient information, according to Australian law, you must have a comprehensive confidentiality policy. Implementing a formal privacy policy doesn’t have to be complicated. For staff and allied health professionals, hold a meeting and ensure everyone understands what’s involved, giving staff clear protocols to follow when handling private information. Patients should be able to access your privacy policy online, but you may want to consider including a Privacy Policy sheet in your New Patient materials and emailing current clients a copy, explaining why, what and how it applies to them. 

2. Ensure the confidentiality policy extends to partners

Speak to your healthcare partners and establish who has access to patient information, how will it be handled and when it will be transmitted. The goal is not to control how they do things, but to ensure their confidentiality ethos aligns with the strict levels of protection you’ve implemented or plan to implement. This step can be as simple as a phone call to compare privacy policies and security setups, sorting out any divisions then and there. 

3. Make sure all confidential information is stored within secure systems

With the ever-increasing volume of patient data being generated, clinics may face challenges in determining what types of data need to be collected and on what types of systems the data should be stored. Furthermore, and most importantly, look to invest in a cloud-based medical practice management platform that offers the highest level of security and protection. It is imperative to ensure that your cloud-based system is backed by an Australian Government-certified provider, such as Microsoft Azure. 

4. Implement best practice IT security policies

There are some everyday tips that you can adopt to ensure that you and your team aren't inadvertently opening yourself up to a security threat, including:

  • Encrypt and password protect all laptops, tablets and smartphones as these devices are highly susceptible to being lost or stolen.
  • Enforce a workplace policy that requires complex passwords or phrases be used, containing a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols, as modern targeted password hackers can easily crack common passwords. Never share passwords among team members.
  • Ensure your practice management system uses two-factor authentication.
  • Protect against malicious software by ensuring that all computers and servers are protected by antivirus systems and are regularly patched and up to date.
  • If you offer WiFi at your clinic, create two separate networks; one for your practice and another for your patients. This reduces the risks of potential breaches.

Over to you

Growing your practice means establishing trust with all your patients. This comes with both a moral and legal responsibility. Regardless of the size of your organisation, implementing a clear privacy and security policy is crucial to ensuring the protection of your patients’ valuable data.

At Clinic To Cloud, your privacy is our top priority. We invest in the best technology infrastructure to keep your data secure - that’s why we partner with Microsoft Azure. Find out more about the security that powers 1000s of medical practices.

Ready to transform your medical practice?
Rafic Habib
Rafic Habib is the Founder and CEO of Clinic to Cloud. Rafic has spent almost two decades in the healthcare technology industry and has a unique appreciation for the level of pressure and intensity the sector falls under in both private and public practice. Rafic identified the opportunity to leverage technology to optimise practice operations, improve patient experiences and improve the financial performances of clinics.
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