Healthcare Websites: HIPAA Compliance Explained

Healthcare Websites - HIPAA Compliance Explained - Web Design Charlotte

Take Steps To Protect Patient Data

Like many healthcare organizations, your website has likely become a digital hub for communicating and exchanging information with your patients. As such, it is essential for your healthcare organization to take steps to prevent unauthorized disclosure, theft, or breach of PHI.

In order to do this effectively, owners and administrators of websites or applications that transmit protected health information (PHI) must first understand their legal obligations. This is where the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as it relates to website and application compliance comes into play.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the ways in which a healthcare organization can put in place practices that ensure the protection of PHI. We’ll also discuss the types of healthcare organizations that must comply with these HIPAA rules as well as the four rules that you must follow in order to be in adherence with rules related to the collection and storage of sensitive patient information.

Let’s get started.

Brief History Of HIPAA

HIPAA is a federal law enacted in 1996. Its purpose is to protect the privacy of Protected Health Information (PHI). It also promotes the use of electronic health records and sets standards for the privacy and security of health information.

The law applies to certain organizations and their business associates, who provide services that involve the use or disclosure of PHI.

In this article, we aim to help you understand what is PHI. We will give you insight. This will help you decide if your organization must take steps that follow HIPAA regulations related to protecting PHI.

Protected Health Information

PHI stands for Protected Health Information.

It includes any information that identifies an individual and relates to their health status. This includes past, present, or future physical or mental health conditions, healthcare services received, or payment for healthcare services.

Examples of PHI include medical diagnoses, treatment plans, prescriptions, lab results, and insurance information.

The way in which a healthcare organization like yours would collect PHI can vary. Some organizations collect PHI can be in all forms, including electronic, paper, or oral. No matter the way in which PHI is collected, its collection and storage must be protected.

Importance Of HIPAA Compliance For Healthcare Websites

HIPAA compliance is essential for healthcare websites and applications. The law safeguards patient privacy, preserves the confidentiality of sensitive health data, and prevents data breaches. If a covered entity fails to comply with the law, financial penalties, and damages to the company’s reputation may be the result.

It is essential for those responsible for healthcare websites to prioritize HIPAA compliance. This includes website owners, administrators, and developers. They must take the necessary steps to ensure the security and privacy of Protected Health Information (PHI).


Does Compliance Apply To All Healthcare Websites?

Not all healthcare websites are required to comply with HIPAA regulations. HIPAA only applies to covered entities and their business associates. However, some healthcare websites may fall under the category of business associates. This assignment depends on the services they provide to a healthcare organization. 

To determine if a healthcare website needs to be HIPAA compliant, we must carefully review the website’s functions. You must also consider the provision of services, and the type of PHI collected, stored, or transmitted.

Covered Entities

Covered entities subject to HIPAA regulations include:

  • Healthcare providers, such as doctors, dentists, clinics, and hospitals.
  • Health plans, such as insurance companies.
  • Healthcare clearinghouses, which process or store healthcare information.

According to CDC, the following types of persons and organizations are subject to the Privacy Rule and are considered covered entities:

Healthcare Providers:

Regardless of the size of your practice, all healthcare providers must comply with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. This is true if they eTransmit health information for certain transactions. These transactions include claims:

  • Benefit eligibility inquiries
  • Referral authorization request
  • Other transactions that meet the standards set by the HHS under the HIPAA Transactions Rule

Health Plans:

Included in health plans are:

  • Insurers that provide health, dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage
  • Health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
  • Insurers that offer Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare+Choice, and Medicare supplement policies
  • Insurers that provide long-term care coverage (excluding nursing home fixed-indemnity policies)
  • Health plans sponsored by employers, governments, or churches
  • Health plans that multiple employers jointly sponsor

Business Associates

An individual or organization that is not a part of the covered entity’s workforce. Yet, they use or share personally identifiable health information to perform functions or services for the covered entity. Functions, activities, or services include:

  • Claims processing
  • Data analysis
  • Utilization review
  • Billing

Determining If Your Website Needs To Be HIPAA Compliant

A healthcare website must comply with HIPAA regulations if it is a covered entity or a business associate. If a healthcare website does not fall under these categories, it is still recommended to follow best practices for protecting PHI. This is to provide an extra layer of security and privacy for patient information.


The Four HIPAA Compliance Rules

The Four HIPAA Compliance Rules - Web Design Charlotte

To ensure HIPAA compliance, healthcare websites must follow four essential rules. These are the Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules. Here is a detailed breakdown of each one:

Privacy Rule

The Privacy Rule appoints national standards for protecting individuals’ medical records and personal health information. It applies to healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses that transmit health information electronically. The Privacy Rule’s primary goal is to protect individual health information while allowing the flow of health information.

The Privacy Rule provides individuals with several rights regarding their health information, including:

  • The right to access and inspect their medical records.
  • The right to request a correction of their medical records.
  • The right to request that their medical records not be shared with specific individuals or organizations.
  • The right to receive a notice of privacy practices.

In addition to these individual rights, the Privacy Rule regulates the use and disclosure of protected health information (PHI). Covered entities must obtain individuals’ written authorization before using or disclosing their PHI. Exceptions can be applied for specific situations, such as treatment, payment, and healthcare operations.

Security Rule

The Security Rule establishes national standards for protecting individuals’ electronic PHI (ePHI). The Security Rule applies to covered entities and business associates that create, receive, maintain, or transmit ePHI. The Security Rule’s primary goal is to ensure that ePHI is secure while allowing the flow of health information.

The Security Rule requires covered entities and business associates to implement administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to protect ePHI. These safeguards include:

  • Administrative safeguards include workforce training and management, risk analysis and direction, and contingency planning.
  • Physical safeguards include facility access controls, workstation security, and device and media controls.
  • Technical safeguards include access controls, audit controls, and transmission security.

The Security Rule also requires covered entities and business associates to conduct regular risk analyses. An analysis is necessary in order to implement reasonable and appropriate measures to manage identified risks.

To comply with the HIPAA Security Rule, all covered entities must:

  • Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all e-PHI
  • Detect and safeguard against anticipated threats to the security of the information
  • Protect against anticipated, impermissible uses or disclosures that are not allowed by the rule
  • Utilize HIPAA-compliant web hosting for data storage
  • Certify compliance by their workforce

Enforcement Rule

The Enforcement Rule establishes procedures for investigations, compliance audits, and penalties for HIPAA violations. The Enforcement Rule applies to covered entities and business associates that violate HIPAA regulations. The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces HIPAA regulations.

The Enforcement Rule provides for both civil and criminal penalties for HIPAA violations. Civil penalties can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation and up to $1.5 million annually for identical offenses. Criminal penalties can result in fines of up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

The OCR also conducts compliance audits to ensure that covered entities and business associates follow HIPAA regulations. If a compliance audit reveals violations, the OCR may impose penalties and require corrective action.

Breach Notification Rule

The Breach Notification Rule requires covered entities and business associates to notify affected individuals, the OCR, and, in some cases, the media of a breach of unsecured PHI. The Breach Notification Rule applies to covered entities and business associates that experience a breach of unsecured PHI.

The Breach Notification Rule requires covered entities and business associates to notify affected individuals by 60 days after discovering the breach. In addition, if a breach affects more than 500 individuals, the covered entity must notify media outlets in the affected individuals’ state or jurisdiction.

Collecting, Transmitting, And Storing PHI

We have discussed the significance of HIPAA compliance and its four rules. Now, let us look into the best practices for collecting, storing, and transmitting protected health information on healthcare websites.

Data Encryption

Data encryption is a critical step in protecting PHI from unauthorized access. Encryption transforms data into an unreadable format that can only be decoded by authorized parties with a decryption key.

Websites should use encryption technologies such as SSL/TLS. SSL certificates and other such technologies serve to encrypt data in transit such as information sent through contact forms.

Data at rest should also be encrypted.

Encryption provides an additional layer of protection for PHI, ensuring that it remains confidential and secure.

Access Controls And Authentication

Access controls and authentication are also essential measures for protecting PHI. Healthcare websites should implement strong password policies, two-factor authentication, and other access controls to prevent unauthorized access. These measures ensure that only authorized personnel can access and modify PHI, which helps prevent data breaches.

Periodic Audits

Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments are crucial to ensuring the security and integrity of healthcare websites. These assessments identify potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the website’s security. Identifying such weaknesses allow website owners to take corrective action before a breach occurs.

Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments should be performed at least annually or more if there are website or infrastructure changes.

Staff Compliance Training And Awareness

Staff compliance training and awareness are essential components of HIPAA compliance. All PHI employees should receive regular training on HIPAA regulations and best practices for handling PHI. Training should cover topics such as data security, breach prevention, and how to respond to a breach if it occurs. Regular training ensures that employees understand their responsibilities under HIPAA regulations and are aware of the latest security threats and vulnerabilities.

Developing And Implementing Policies And Procedures

Developing and implementing policies and procedures is essential in ensuring HIPAA compliance. Policies and procedures should outline the website’s security protocols, including:

  • how PHI is collected, stored, and transmitted
  • how access to PHI is controlled
  • and how breaches are reported and handled.

In addition, policies and procedures should be regularly reviewed and updated as needed to ensure they remain current and effective.

Working with HIPAA-Compliant Vendors

When working with third-party vendors, it’s essential to ensure they are also HIPAA compliant.

Vendors handling PHI must also comply with HIPAA regulations, and website owners should ensure that their vendors meet these HIPAA requirements.

Website owners should ask vendors to provide documentation that verifies their HIPAA compliance, including their policies and procedures for handling PHI.

Be Compliant. Stay Compliant

HIPAA compliance is crucial for healthcare websites that collect, store, and transmit protected health information. Failure to comply with HIPAA regulations can result in severe penalties, including fines and legal action. 

Ensuring your company’s website is HIPAA compliant, includes implementing the four HIPAA compliance rules mentioned above. It is recommended that your team adopts documented processes. These processes should ensure adherence to best practices for collecting, storing, and transmitting PHI.

Following the guidelines we’ve discussed here will help healthcare websites prevent data breaches and protect the privacy and security of patients. HIPAA compliance is a legal requirement and an ethical obligation to protect patient’s sensitive health information.

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