HIPAA and the Cloud: What Healthcare Professionals Need to Know
These 11 considerations will help your organization steer clear of costly regulatory fines
In terms of HIPAA fines, 2020 and 2021 were the top two years on record and saw many major healthcare companies like Anthem, Premera Blue Cross, and Advocate Health Care shell out millions for their violations. While the move to cloud-based data storage can be extremely beneficial for healthcare providers, it can also put those organizations at risk if they don’t understand the unique challenges posed by HIPAA cloud compliance.
To help your organization make the transition with confidence, here’s what to keep in mind as you modernize your IT.
Jump to a section…
Learn more about the rules, regulations, risks, and benefits of healthcare cloud computing with Cloud Computing in Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide.
11 HIPAA Cloud Compliance Considerations for Healthcare Providers
Understand Your Role
Most cloud service providers (CSPs) will call themselves HIPAA compliant, but that designation only points to the fact that compliance is possible using their service — not that it has been achieved. No CSP can ensure that. Your organization must thoroughly understand HIPAA requirements and how they relate to your data and technology stack. Then you and your staff must do everything needed to uphold those requirements.
Identify the HIPAA-Relevant Data
The next step towards achieving HIPAA compliance in the cloud is mapping out your data according to its regulatory relevance. You need to know what exactly portions of your data are considered protected health information (PHI), such as ID numbers, contact information, medical diagnoses, treatment history, test results, etc. Most of the time, your organization will have to both identify this data and encrypt it to sign a business associate agreement (BAA) with a CSP.
Understand the Security Rule’s Mandates
The Security Rule outlines the operational measures healthcare providers need to put into place to ensure the security of electronic PHI. These measures involve providing comprehensive HIPAA education for your staff, maintaining end-to-end privacy, integrity, and availability of relevant data, adopting robust risk mitigation tactics, creating protocols to minimize unauthorized disclosure, and more.
Understand the Encryption Process
Encryption is a vital component of HIPAA cloud compliance. All PHI data transferred between on-prem and cloud environments — or between cloud environments — must be encrypted. Encryption must also be used on PHI across many local storage devices and networks. Transport Layer Security (TLS) is a popular encryption standard for data in transit, as is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) for data at rest. Understand these standards and how you’re going to implement them.
Conduct a Risk Assessment
While risk assessments are an ongoing component of maintaining HIPAA compliance in the cloud, you also must do an initial analysis to prepare for a migration. Conducting a comprehensive risk assessment includes spotting vulnerabilities, determining viable threats, evaluating your security measures, and assigning a risk level to your IT architecture. As for frequency, many healthcare providers go through this process every year to ensure they stay ahead of potentially serious issues.
Assess the CSP’s BAA
A business associate agreement (BAA) is a legal document that governs the relationship between healthcare providers and CSPs as it relates to the exchange of PHI data. Having conducted your risk assessment, you’re now in a great position to understand what kind of BAA works for your organization and whatever CSPs are part of your cloud migration plan. It’s important to note that these documents are extensive, containing provisions and guidelines for everything from data breaches to employee training. So, think through your company’s responsibilities across each of these areas.
Understand How The Major CSPs Match Up on HIPAA Compliance
All the top CSPs — Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) — offer similar provisions regarding HIPAA compliance. Their platforms are all built to the relevant specifications and support HIPAA-compliant usage —- and they have standard BAAs that customers are required to sign. But, as discussed earlier, they can make no guarantees around actual compliance: That responsibility ultimately falls on the healthcare provider. For a deeper look into how the CSPs stack up, here are links to the AWS, Azure, and GCP HIPAA compliance pages.
For a deep dive into emerging approaches to achieving HIPAA compliance, read our white paper:
Assess the CSP’s SLA
Your CSP’s service-level agreement (SLA) is another important consideration when it comes to HIPAA compliance in the cloud. HIPAA has strict requirements regarding the privacy, integrity, and availability of electronic PHI data directly related to the terms of that document, so be sure to have a clear understanding of what your CSP can guarantee around key service areas like uptime, cybersecurity measures, and more. Reading through the fine print on these contracts may not be enjoyable, but it’s preferable to the exorbitant fines resulting from HIPAA violations.
Maintain Continuous Monitoring
Any CSP you work with should maintain continuous monitoring of whatever electronic PHI they store on their platform. Breaches can occur at any moment, and your organization will want immediate notice should your CSP detect suspicious activity — so this should be a non-negotiable part of their service.
Train Your Staff
According to a recent report by Verizon, human error is the leading cause of healthcare data breaches, accounting for over 33% of incidents. To mitigate the risk of such preventable HIPAA violations, educate your staff on the regulations, the dangers of non-compliance, and the protocols they should follow to help safeguard the organization. For those looking for a good place to start, consider reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services training materials page.
Find HIPAA-compliant cloud migration services
Using cloud migration services that come HIPAA compliant out of the box can dramatically reduce the time it takes to get your new assets up and running. DuploCloud is a leading cloud migration tool that uses automation to accelerate time to compliance, cutting the investment required from months to days. Learn about how healthcare providers are using this innovative approach to rapidly deploy HIPAA-compliant cloud architectures in our recent whitepaper.