Medical Records Flapping in the Breeze!

Posted: May 11, 2017 by IntentionalPrivacy in HIPAA - HITECH, Identity theft, Privacy, Private Health Information (PHI), Security Breach, Vulnerabilities
Tags: , , ,

Medical record theft is on the rise, and according to  Reuters ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cybersecurity-hospitals-idUSKCN0HJ21I20140924 ), a stolen medical record is worth ten times what a stolen credit card number on the black market. The reason medical records are worth so much more, is because they are used to steal benefits and commit identity theft and tax fraud.

How easy is it to steal medical records?

This morning, I read Brian Kreb’s report on True Health Diagnostics health portal, which allowed other patients’ medical test results to be read by changing one digit on the PDF link. The company—based in Frisco, Texas—immediately took the portal down and spent the weekend fixing it. https://krebsonsecurity.com/2017/05/website-flaw-let-true-health-diagnostics-users-view-all-medical-records/

While I think it is great they fixed the problem so rapidly, I am disgusted that our medical information is so often flapping in the breeze. Health professionals are notoriously lax about protecting their patients’ medical information. A security professional that I know defended medical people by saying they do not understand HIPAA/HITECH. Yes, I know they do not necessarily understand the technical details. But is ignorance an excuse? I do not think so. They have IT people to support those computers and medical professionals are supposed to attend HIPAA training on a regular basis.

For instance, upon reading the FAQs at http://www.holisticheal.com/faq-dna , I noticed that after a patient completes their tests (recommended by my doctor), this practitioner sent results in email. It is not a simple test like cholesterol; it contains information about someone’s DNA.

After I emailed them and told them I would not consider using their service because email is not secure unless encrypted and in my opinion this practice—sending medical results in unencrypted email—is contrary to HIPAA/HITECH, they changed their policy. While they now send the results for US patients on a computer disk through the mail, they still send international clients their results through email.

I have frequently caught my own medical professionals leaving their patient portals open when I am alone in the exam room or even away having tests. During one notable session, without touching the computer, I could see a list of all the patients being seen that day on the left, and the doctor’s schedule across the top (including 3 cancellations). Another medical professional texted me part of my treatment plan. (I thought we were limiting our text conversation to time, date, and location. Otherwise I never would have agreed to text. I had never even met this person!) Another provider grouped three receptionists with computers (no privacy screens) in a circle with windows on two sides. I could read two of the screens when signing in and the third when leaving and I saw them leave their screens open when they walked away from their computers so that the other receptionists can use those computers.

Granted, these incidents may not be breaches, but I think they are violations of HIPAA/HITECH and they could lead to breaches. What are the chances they are using appropriate access control, backing up their systems, encrypting their backups, thinking about third-party access? Are they vulnerable to phishing, crypto ransomware, hackers, employee malfeasance, someone’s child playing with the phone?

Yes, I get that people make mistakes. The problem is they have the ability to make mistakes! Set up fail safes. Require each employee’s phone to be physically encrypted and give them a way to send encrypted emails or texts or do not allow them to text or email patients. Make screens lock after five minutes or sooner. Give them training. Spot check what they’re doing.

I always discuss these issues when I notice them with the practice HIPAA Privacy Officer (and sometimes change medical providers if egregious). Does it help? Maybe. But it always makes me wonder what I have not seen.

Pay attention! Protecting your data helps protect everybody’s data.

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