HIPAA, HITECH Compliance Not Improving Health Care Data Security: Survey

Despite spending a lot of time making sure they are compliant with federal and state regulations, health care organizations claim they are still seeing a lot of data breaches.

Being regulatory-compliant does not necessarily reduce the chances of a data breach, at least for the health care industry, according to a new study. Even more worrisome, organizations appear to be focusing more on compliance and less on security.

About 56 percent of IT security professionals in the health care industry said they spend the majority of their time addressing compliance requirements, according to the results of a GlobalSign survey released May 26. Even so, 34 percent of the health care industry IT security professionals polled said their organizations experienced a patient-records data breach within the past two years.

The survey "validates" the fact that health care organizations are putting in the effort to comply with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), the HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act, and other state and federal regulations, according to Lila Kee, chief product officer at GlobalSign. However, it also demonstrated that "checking the boxes on compliance audits" will not ensure security or privacy when it comes to sensitive data, Kee said.

Organizations that pay more attention to HIPAA don't fare any better. Even though more than half the respondents reported devoting more time to ensure they met HIPAA compliance procedures over other regulations, 47 percent said they had experienced a patient-records data breach in the past two years. In an April study by Ipswitch, 40 percent of network administrators said HIPAA was the most challenging security regulation to implement.

About 37 percent of IT security professionals in the survey admitted to spending less than a quarter of their time on improving security or protecting patient privacy.

GlobalSign surveyed 107 health care industry IT security professionals, including administrators, managers and C-level executives, for this report. A little over half the health care organizations included had 5,000 employees or more.

The findings for the health care industry did not mirror a similar report from the Ponemon Institute that examined how efforts to comply with PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry-Data Security Standard) affected an organization's security. PCI-compliant organizations suffered fewer or no data breaches in 2009 and 2010, compared with previous years, the Ponemon Institute found. In comparison, only 38 percent of organizations that were not PCI-compliant were able to make the same claim.

"At the end of the day, we believe that PCI-DSS is one of the most effective data-security regulations today and can significantly help companies improve their data-security posture," says Amichai Shulman, co-founder and CTO of Imperva.

Considering that PCI-DSS seems to be doing its job of making an organization more secure, perhaps health care regulations should be modified to consider security from the outside. "HIPAA is considering using PCI" as a skeleton framework for auditors to ensure proper security for medical records, Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at Imperva, told eWEEK.

A majority of the respondents, 79 percent, said finding effective tools to deploy and manage both security measures and compliance requirements, is the biggest challenge facing the IT department. Organizations need to thoroughly evaluate technologies before deployment to ensure they can address both auditor requirements and actually protect data and patient privacy, Kee said.

GlobalSign said its new Biowrap identity-based service will allow health care organizations to improve security while maintaining compliance. Biowrap allows the user to decide which pieces of information to encrypt before transmitting the data electronically. The individual employee has to first log in to the service before encrypting any data. With Biowrap, IT departments don't need to roll out public key infrastructure certificates for individual users.