Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) is not just vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Physical threats like theft, natural disasters, and accidental exposure are just as significant. That's why regulations demand strict physical controls to secure health data.

This article will introduce HIPAA physical safeguards. We will explore the different ways to protect hardware and electronic media. We will also suggest some ways to create physical security controls.

What are the HIPAA physical safeguards?

HIPAA physical safeguards are physical security measures. These measures follow the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Physical measures protect electronic Protected Health Information. They prevent unauthorized access to physical devices and cut the risk of theft and data loss.

Under HIPAA, physical safeguards meet three core goals. They protect patient confidentiality. They guard data integrity. And they make accurate data available to patients and providers.

HIPAA physical safeguards

Facility access controls

Healthcare organizations need a comprehensive facility security plan. Covered entities should allow authorized individuals access. However, physical safeguards must limit access for all other individuals. Examples of facility access controls include:

  • Access control and validation procedures. Locks secure areas containing workstations or storage devices. Entry systems should only allow authorized access. Organizations can use access cards, biometric scanners, passwords, or traditional locks.
  • Visitor management. Covered entities must log all visitors to healthcare facilities. Records should include visitor identities and the purpose of the visit. Logs should record the visitor’s entry time and time of departure. Staff should escort visitors in high-risk areas.
  • Surveillance. Security cameras should track facilities holding ePHI. Cameras should also cover entrances.
  • Alarms. Intrusion detection systems should be part of every facility's security plan. Test alarm systems and ensure they cover every data storage location.

Device and media controls

Compliant organizations must secure devices that store or handle ePHI. Controls should cover equipment that could access ePHI but rarely do so. Device and media controls include:

  • Device inventories. Every healthcare organization must maintain an accurate record of connected devices. This inventory should include laptops and workstations. It should cover smartphones, servers, and security hardware. Organizations should also inventory removable media like Smart drives or memory cards.
  • Device information. Device information should include unique identifiers like serial numbers. Data should also include the device location and information about the security configuration.
  • Physical controls. Organizations must store devices handling ePHI in secure environments. Employees should lock away devices when not in use. Simple accessories like cable locks can also secure devices in work environments.

Workstation security

Physical safeguards must cover general device security. However, there are extra measures to consider when securing employee workstations.

  • Physical location. Position screens away from unauthorized individuals. Workstations should not be accessible to the public. Screen privacy filters can obscure screens and cut the risk of ePHI exposure.
  • Safe storage. Store workstations should be in locked compartments. Robust authentication systems should manage access to stored devices.
  • Maintenance. Third-party maintenance organizations must be HIPAA-compliant. Organizations must secure ePHI before sending workstations for maintenance procedures. And maintenance records should document who has worked on each device.

Workstation use

Workstation security includes how employees use their computers or connected devices. Workstation use controls include:

  • Strong passwords. Workstation users must use strong passwords. Employees should never store authentication information in physical form.
  • Automatic locks. Workstations should lock automatically after inactive periods.
  • Removable electronic media. Organizations should encrypt data on removable devices. They must dispose of electronic media securely after use. Policies should prevent media re-use and the use of private devices.
  • Clean desk policies. Employees should remove PHI from desks when leaving workstations.

Why are physical safeguards important?

Physical safeguards supplement technical and administrative measures. They protect devices that store ePHI. Robust physical controls are the foundation for comprehensive security systems. They are also crucial in ensuring HIPAA compliance.

Physical security measures follow the HIPAA Security Rule. Safeguards create a series of barriers that restrict access to electronic information systems.

Security safeguards help organizations follow the HIPAA Privacy Rule. Managing the position of workstations cuts the chance of outsiders viewing confidential information. Securing paper records and digital devices cuts the risk of accidental ePHI exposure.

Physical security has other benefits for healthcare organizations. Secure environments reassure patients. Visitors feel that the healthcare organization will protect their data. Organizations that take physical security seriously tend to enjoy better reputations.

Managing physical risks also contributes to incident recovery processes. Organizations know the location and status of devices that contain ePHI. They can physically protect high-value assets. They can also restore system functions with contingency operations.

What are examples of physical safeguards?

Physical safeguards are distinct from technical safeguards. Technical safeguards protect digital resources. And they are not the same as administrative safeguards. These safeguards deal with processes and documentation.

Physical safeguards are usually tools or items used by covered entities. They are often relatively basic. But they still need a systematic compliance plan. Examples of physical safeguards for the health industry include:

  • Surveillance cameras. Cameras track high-risk areas. They record physical access around data storage devices. Notices inform visitors that cameras are in use.
  • Access control systems. Electronic locks protect the entrances of healthcare facilities. Access controls include biometric scanners, keypads, or card scanners. Access control measures should admit one person at a time. High-risk areas should have more than one form of access protection.
  • Secure cabinets. Covered Entities should store devices handling ePHI in locked cabinets.
  • Cable locks. Cable locks secure devices with robust cables. Organizations should use them to secure high-risk devices. Risk assessments should determine the correct anchor points. And devices should have security slots to accommodate cable locks.
  • Security alarms. Physical safeguards alert security teams when intrusions occur. Alarm systems should focus on areas that store ePHI. Solutions include motion detection alarms, contact alarms, or employee-activated panic alarms.
  • Data disposal. Organizations must shred physical PHI. And they must use approved degaussers in ePHI disposal.

How to ensure compliance with HIPAA physical safeguards?

Finding the right mix of physical controls is crucial. Follow these ideas to ensure that your physical security systems are HIPAA-compliant.

1. Carry out a comprehensive risk assessment

Healthcare organizations should inventory all physical devices, including their locations. Divide the inventory into devices that store and send ePHI.

Classify high-risk areas and devices. For example, risks associated with publicly accessible workstations include accidental ePHI exposure. Risked linked to data storage facilities include data theft or natural disasters. Assess whether physical safeguards can mitigate identified risks.

2. Adopt a layered approach to access control

The HIPAA Security Rule requires access controls to protect high-risk assets. Lightly control entrances to healthcare facilities. However, extra access controls should protect professional offices and data stores.

3. Put in place physical security policies

Document physical safeguards. Include information about the purpose of each safeguard. Explain how employees should use physical security measures. For example, employees should know about media re-use policies and workstation security.

Describe maintenance and auditing procedures for critical security systems. Explain how to keep maintenance records and how often to test physical controls.

Make physical security a component of employee training. Extend this training to Business Associates with access to healthcare facilities.

4. Use tracking systems to ensure device awareness

IT teams should be able to track the location of devices and their current status. Device tracking includes on-site workstations as well as remote work devices. And monitoring also covers removable media. Document the movement or removal of hardware and electronic media. And record the individual responsible for those movements.

5. Audit physical safeguards

Test alarms and access controls. Make sure access systems block unauthorized physical access. Manage device lifecycles to replace security equipment when needed.

Carry out regular incident recovery exercises. These exercises should assess whether physical safeguards are enough to protect data. If necessary, plan contingency operations to function when physical controls fail. Schedule data backup and storage in secure locations.

Conclusion: physical security is a critical HIPAA priority

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act demands strict physical controls. Apply access control and validation procedures. Create a disaster recovery plan to restore physical systems. And install tracking systems to cover devices that handle ePHI. Find the right blend of physical safeguards to meet HIPAA compliance goals.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not legal advice. Use it at your own risk and consider consulting a licensed professional for legal matters. Content may not be up-to-date or applicable to your jurisdiction and is subject to change without notice.