The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is the main body of regulations for healthcare organizations in the USA. Compliant organizations must install technical measures to protect patient privacy and secure data. Knowing how these safeguards work is critically important.

This article will explain what HIPAA technical safeguards are. Readers will learn the importance of technical controls for healthcare compliance strategies. And we will explore how the four pillars of technical controls contribute to HIPAA compliance.

What are HIPAA technical safeguards?

HIPAA technical safeguards protect Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) to meet regulatory requirements. Technical security safeguards use technology to achieve compliance goals. They function alongside administrative and physical safeguards in compliant Covered Entities.

HIPAA technical security measures achieve three core aims:

  • Confidentiality. Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) must be confidential. Only authorized personnel should have access to patient data. Safeguards should permit access for approved purposes. But they must block all other access requests.
  • Integrity. PHI should remain unchanged throughout its lifecycle. Only authorized individuals should be able to make changes. Safeguards classify and locate critical data. They prevent alterations and enforce technical standards such as data formats and coding.
  • Availability. Sensitive health information must be secure and confidential. But it must also be available for medical professionals and patients. Under HIPAA regulations, patients have the right to request their health records. Technical safeguards must enable this access. And they should also restore health databases when incidents occur.

Technical safeguards cover network infrastructure, hardware, and applications. Controls secure data under the HIPAA Security Rule. They guard confidentiality under the HIPAA Privacy Rule. And they streamline reporting under the Breach Notification Rule.

Safeguards cut the risk of compliance violations by protecting patient data. They streamline information systems by encouraging standardization and centralization. Safeguards also make it easier to choose how to implement hardware overhauls.

Why are technical safeguards important?

Technical security safeguards are critical components of HIPAA regulations. They contribute to the goals of protecting patient privacy and ensuring data security. And they perform a range of critical tasks.

Technical controls protect Electronic Protected Health data against external threats. Safeguards prevent unauthorized viewing or extraction of health data. Security controls reduce the risk of large-scale data breaches. And they build confidence in the healthcare system. Patients can trust bodies that follow the HIPAA Security Rule to protect their data.

HIPAA safeguards also allow Covered Entities to track information systems. Controls track the status of electronic health records. They protect data integrity from document generation to disposal. Tracking tools allow organizations to respond quickly to data breaches or other concerns. This limits the risk of PHI exposure.

Data integrity also ensures that PHI is accurate and available for medical professionals. Physicians or dentists can be confident that nobody has tampered with patient records. Encryption also makes telemedicine more secure. Professionals can reach patients without raising security risks.

Technical safeguards protect data in the digital realm. Safeguards assist Covered Entities in building compliant systems. And they evolve to meet new digital threats or privacy issues. For example, data integrity safeguards help to anonymize patient identities. This makes it easier to organize data-driven medical studies.

Main pillars of HIPAA technical safeguards

HIPAA technical safeguards fall into four categories or "pillars." Use these four pillars to design compliance strategies and implement security measures.

Main pillars of HIPAA technical safeguards

Access control

Covered Entities must use access control systems to authorize all network users. Tools should assign privileges linked to a user’s organizational role.

Security measures should enable the “minimum necessary” access. Users should have access to the data or apps they need. But they should have the power to access other network resources. Session controls can track access and ensure compliance with authorization policies.

Compliant organizations also safeguard their network edge with person or entity authentication systems. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) tools demand more than one identification factor for every login. This screens out users without the right credentials.

Access control measures to put in place:

  • Identity and Access Management (IAM) tools
  • Role-based privileges for all network users
  • Unique IDs for all users
  • Session tracking including automated lockouts
  • Emergency access policies for incident recovery
  • Regular privileges audits
  • Person or entity authentication systems
  • Extra authentication for remote access and business associates
  • Offboarding obsolete accounts
  • Physical access safeguards for sensitive locations

Audit controls

Audit controls have two central goals. They deliver evidence of HIPAA compliance for regulators and internal stakeholders. Audit controls also enable swift and secure disaster recovery after security incidents.

HIPAA-compliant organizations must log user activity and data movements. IT teams must install the hardware and software tools needed to track users. Administrators should use tracking data to audit access settings.

Audits should detect suspicious access requests. They should identify over-privileged users with too much network access. Auditors should be able to document who accessed a specific resource, and when they did so.

Audit controls to put in place:

  • Activity and access tracking
  • Centralized audit logs to collect tracking data
  • Alerts to provide real-time notifications
  • Automated activity reports
  • Quarterly data and user activity audits
  • Secure audit data storage

Data integrity controls

Data integrity controls ensure that PHI remains intact and accurate throughout its lifecycle. Covered Entities must ensure that ePHI remains in the correct format and location.

Organizations need strategies to protect data against malicious threats. This includes insiders seeking to access data for private ends. And it also includes cyber-attackers. But systems must also guard data against accidental destruction or alteration. Organizations must plan for system outages and adverse incidents.

Data integrity controls should protect ePHI against unauthorized changes. Healthcare providers should encrypt health information. Data hashing and digital signatures make it harder to change data without detection. Security alerts should also notify network managers when data amendments take place.

Data integrity controls to install:

  • Encryption and digital hashing
  • Digital signatures
  • Data backups
  • Data integrity audits
  • Data validation checks

Transmission security

Transmission security prevents unauthorized interception of protected health data. Controls should protect data within on-premises networks and Cloud platforms. And Covered Entities must also consider remote access security if this is relevant.

Compliant organizations must secure the infrastructure that stores and transmits Protected Health Information. Security managers must apply encryption to stored data, and secure protocols should lock down transmitted data. Physical controls should limit access to servers or transmission devices.

Transmission security controls to put in place:

  • Secure encryption (e.g. SSL/TLS)
  • Secure file transfer protocols
  • Email encryption
  • VPNs or other secure gateways
  • Firewalls and Intrusion Detection Systems
  • Secure Web Portals for patient interactions
  • Physical controls
  • Remote data deletion for stolen devices

Achieve HIPAA compliance with technical safeguards

Technical security controls are an essential part of HIPAA compliance. Safeguards encrypt data and maintain data integrity according to the HIPAA Security Rule. And they protect confidentiality according to the HIPAA Privacy Rule. Every Covered Entity must know how to install the correct technical controls.

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.