Securing the cloud: The vanguard of patient data protection

Exploring the intersection of cloud services and data security in modern healthcare systems, which hold troves of patient information.

As more healthcare providers and vendors rely on cloud-based collaborative apps to drive productivity and advance interoperability levels, data security becomes a top priority.

Among the healthcare industry’s many challenges, data security is a top priority for healthcare leaders today. The rampant rate of data breaches is mind-blowing, impacting everyone from large healthcare networks and medical offices to insurance companies and the vendors that support the healthcare space.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services’ list of data security cases under investigation, 49 separate data security incidents were reported to the agency in the first month of this year alone, affecting more than 5.5 million individuals. It is an astounding number when you consider the consequences of a data breach.

Unfortunately, because of the vast amounts of personal data that lives within healthcare records and the need for highly interoperable systems across the healthcare landscape, cybercriminals tend to target the healthcare industry more than other business sectors. Not only do data security incidents within the healthcare sector outpace other industries, the American Hospital Association reports that the cost to remediate a healthcare data breach is nearly three times that of remediation costs for other industries, averaging $408 per stolen healthcare-related record vs. $148 per stolen non-healthcare record.

Interoperability vs. data security

Interoperability (the exchange of health information between two or more systems) is a major component of the healthcare experience that benefits both providers and patients, as well as healthcare payers and clearinghouses that digitally transmit medical claims to insurance carriers.

With so much data flowing in and out of cloud-based systems, various regulatory and legislative requirements such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) have been established to protect healthcare data and ensure patient privacy standards.

But the exponential growth of patient populations and potential treatment programs — combined with the massive proliferation of healthcare technology — require additional levels of data security for all involved, especially when you consider just how many organizations are implementing SaaS solutions to run their healthcare businesses.

While HIPAA serves as the cornerstone of patient protections, other compliance standards have been put in place to ensure healthcare technology platforms are equipped with necessary data security levers. But many cloud-based technology solutions and collaborative SaaS apps that enable collaborative work environments fail to meet the same compliance standards.

As a result, many healthcare organizations have strict enforcements in place that regulate how employees use these solutions or block employees from implementing them at all.

Striking the right balance

Such restrictive measures that completely block the implementation of various collaborative work apps come at a cost. Many SaaS solutions enable heightened productivity levels and streamline internal workflow processes — much needed benefits for an industry that is currently suffering from massive labor shortages and increasingly problematic burnout rates among clinical and admin staff.

However, the lack of insight into how data is shared and who is sharing it keeps many organizations from implementing solutions like Google Workspace apps, Slack and more.

It makes sense when you consider the lack of oversight for so many SaaS applications. Our data security platform has performed extensive research on the amount of vulnerable data lurking in cloud-based applications. After analyzing approximately 6.5 million Google Drive files, our research team discovered more than 40 percent contained sensitive data that could lead to a data breach or cybersecurity attack.

The primary issue with such SaaS apps is not that the employees using them have malicious intentions. In fact, most employees who put their company at risk of a data breach are simply trying to do their work. The problem is the lack of oversight into the data stored within these apps. Many employees are inadvertently uploading highly vulnerable patient data and business information to unsecured platforms, leading to ultra-restrictive measures by IT and security teams that forbid access to any collaborative work apps.

Finding a balance between necessary data security regulations and an optimal collaborative work environment involves data security solutions that give IT and security teams complete visibility into the data stored within their healthcare organization’s SaaS ecosystem. In the early days of HIPAA, such visibility was difficult to reach if not impossible, but that’s no longer the case.

Establishing a data security strategy

A frictionless healthcare experience hinges on a complex technology stack that enables maximum interoperability. The paradox of this reality is that the U.S. healthcare system is a highly regulated industry built on steadfast cybersecurity policies with strict guidelines around the processes and technology used to deliver care.

These two opposing forces can make life difficult for CISOs and security leaders charged with keeping their healthcare organizations safe from data breaches, unless they have the right data security strategy in place.

An effective data security strategy starts with a well-informed team. First and foremost, it’s imperative that your staff understands HIPAA rules and follows them accordingly. A HIPAA violation can cost a business as much as $1.5 million a year — the maximum amount for willful neglect with no effort to rectify the issue within 30 days. Even when performing due diligence, a healthcare organization can be fined as much as $50,000 per HIPAA violation.

To quickly scale your data security efforts, it helps to have a “human firewall” policy in effect. This involves creating a human-centric data security strategy where all employees are empowered with technology to safeguard patient data themselves, with real time and actionable notifications delivered in their primary communications places, like Microsoft Teams and Slack.

A key ingredient of a successful “Human Firewall” strategy is a data security platform that provides complete visibility into your SaaS ecosystem. An effective data security solution gives your security and compliance team deep insights into the data being stored and shared via collaborative work apps, while also giving employees outside of the security team tools to flag any activities that could result in a data breach.

Ultimately, the goal for healthcare providers is to ensure work is completed and care is delivered in the most effective and efficient manner possible, without putting patient data at risk. A comprehensive data security strategy relies on data security technology that lets security leaders see what information is being uploaded into cloud-based applications — and identifies the employees who are uploading it.

Such innovative security solutions not only protect patients and the reputation of their healthcare providers, these security tools have the potential to save healthcare organizations millions of dollars in data breach remediation costs. It’s a win-win for all – the patient, the healthcare provider and the security team doing their best to keep everyone safe and moving forward.

Rich Vibert is CEO and co-founder of Metomic.

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