Six data protection tips for healthcare organizations


The healthcare sector is now dominated by technology, which plays an ever-increasing role in the delivery of healthcare services. In particular, the use of mobile devices and cloud-hosted services are essential to the daily running of the industry – such as the use and accessing of electronic medical records. This has only been further enforced by NHS England’s commitment to going paperless in 2020.

Inevitably, this has caused concerns around data protection, with many sceptical about a lack of suitable technology to protect NHS data, and limited in-house skills to implement the initiative.

This post details six top data protection tips to help improve information security in healthcare organisations, highlighting tools and methods you can use to maintain to protect sensitive patient data throughout its lifecycle.

Step One: Outline your information security policy

Healthcare organisations often come under scrutiny when detailing personal information security policies. Within any company, every employee has the responsibility to ensure information is kept safe and is used appropriately. Yet without well-structured information security policies, employees and also third parties have no data protection guidelines to follow when carrying out their day-to-day tasks.

Important questions to ask yourself when designing your information security policy are: Have I aligned my policy to the company’s objectives? Is it aligned to the legislation and regulatory frameworks that I operate in? Is it relevant to the audience it is intended for? What is the best format for my audience to receive the policy? 

Step Two: Invest in technology

Before investing in technology, an important task to carry out is identifying the security problems within the company. Are you facing issues due to the type of software you have? Is the software well used by employees? Can employees easily and securely access the data from platforms such as a mobile app or email? 

These questions are important to ask yourself in order to identify any issues within your data security. Once you have detected the area of concern, you can now research and invest in a suitable technology that will be designed to solve these outlined problems.

One main focus area that many healthcare professionals should consider is the rise of human error – which has been proven to be the greatest cause of data breaches. An important aspect that was highlighted in the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) recent review is that data security systems and protocols were not always designed around the needs of frontline staff. This meant that in emergency medicine settings, staff face the difficulty of not being able to communicate sensitive information without the worry of risking its security. Doctors and surgeons should be able to encrypt sensitive information quickly and easily from any device, so investing in technology such as email encryption that integrates with a mobile app would help tackle this issue.

Step Three: Train and educate staff

Training is an important aspect to any new change a company faces. Without acceptance and understanding from your employees, technology risks becoming a potential waste of time and money. Additionally, you can bring the best-suited and highly recommended piece of technology into your company, but without informing your staff on why it is important and how to correctly use it, then employees may end up avoiding using it completely.

It is important for employers to spend time making sure that the training their employees receive is relevant and accessible. The reason for this is to ensure all staff gain an engaged and open-minded attitude towards the new change, rather than dismissing it due to lack of knowledge and understanding. Additionally, providing training for all staff is a successful way to ensure that they have read and actually understood the policies you have created.

The best way to involve your employees is to provide high-quality and focused training that reinforces the message, and bring current examples to your sessions to add context to your policy.

This links to the important point highlighted in the CQC’s ‘Safe data, safe care: Data security review’, which states that medical staff are committed to data security, however staff at all levels face challenges in translating their commitment to reliable practice. By ensuring considerable time is spent on training, this will help tackle this issue and guarantee that the technology will be smoothly implemented into the company’s culture.

Step Four: Explain policy to third parties

Many companies face the issue of having an informed information security policy, however their external partners are not carrying out the same data security measures as they are. Any data that is handled or processed on your behalf by contracted third parties still remains your responsibility. Therefore, it is important to create a specific third-party security policy to avoid damages to your company’s reputation. For outsourced services, this can also mean ensuring that the correct training is implemented for third parties, so it is important to review the third party's data handling, employment policies (employing staff that are trained in data handling procedures) and visiting their offices.

Step Five: Evaluate the implementation of security policies

In order to measure the success of the implementation, companies need to invest in security software that offers trending and analysis. Not only does this allow you to track and display the security-critical information that is flowing through the company, but it will also make you aware of who exactly is sending sensitive information and whether it is encrypted. This allows you to monitor the success of the implemented information security requirements, and whether changes or altercations need to be made to your policies.

Step Six: Stay in control

Lastly, an important factor to consider when implementing the right technology is having the ability to remain in control of your shared information. No amount of training can prevent someone from making a mistake, and in such a sensitive data environment as healthcare, it is important to invest in encryption software that offers functionality to mitigate this – such as revoking access to emails, even if the email has reached the recipient's inbox in real time. This will present the data owner with the opportunity to correct the mistakes that they may have made. Two-factor authentication could also be a crucial functionality, requiring the recipient to enter a password before they open the email. This means that even if the sender has not realised that the email has been sent to the wrong person, the recipient still cannot access the email without the agreed password.

It is becoming increasingly crucial for healthcare organisations to not only invest in software to protect patient’s sensitive data to the highest standards. As detailed, this means taking a holistic approach to information security – looking at it not only as it resides within you network, but when it crosses the boundary as well. It also involves recognising employees as key stakeholders when investing in information security policies and technologies, keeping them informed of changes and the importance of protecting patient’s data.

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