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How Dental Practices Can Stay HIPAA Compliant and Protect Their Patients’ Information

By Planet DDS
April 29, 2022

As technology advances, so do cyberattacks. Staying compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations is a framework to safeguard against hackers and protect your practice. HIPAA compliance is not something to put by the wayside. It is an essential part of running a dental office and safeguarding patient information. 

Covered entities and their business associates are required to follow the rules and laws within HIPAA. Solo dental practices, DSOs, and practitioners within these organizations are typically considered covered entities under HIPAA.  

HIPAA contains several rules and laws. The Security Rule specifically deals with Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). In a world where most of your patient data is likely stored electronically, the Security Rule is more important than ever before. This blog will focus on the importance of adhering to the Security Rule to keep your practice safe from cybercriminals.  

HIPAA Security Rule 

One of the original intentions of congress enacting HIPAA is to improve employees’ ability to move their patient data when they are between jobs and to prevent fraud and abuse in the healthcare industry. The HIPAA Privacy Rule regulates the use and disclosure of protected health information (PHI) by covered entities, while the Security Rule under HIPAA goes a step further to safeguard ePHI. 

Importance of Staying HIPAA Compliant  

The US government created HIPAA to protect patients and their privacy. A breach in HIPAA compliance may not only cause a loss in patient trust but can also lead to sizable fines and penalties.  

Failing to stay compliant also puts your practice at a larger risk of cyberattacks. Cyberattacks can be costly and cause a major disruption to your practice’s daily operations. In 2020, each breached patient record in the healthcare industry cost approximately $499. Many dental offices have even had to shut their doors because of the financial consequences of a HIPPA violation. Investing extra time to ensure your practice is compliant and has extensive security measures is worth the protection it provides your business.  

Why Do Cybercriminals Target Dental Practices?  

Cybercriminals do not shy away from targeting the healthcare industry. In 2020, Healthcare accounted for 79% of all reported cyber breaches. Patient records are a valuable item for cybercriminals. One patient record can be sold for up to $1000 on the Dark Web, while social security numbers only cost as little as $1. Small dental offices are popular targets because they often do not have the proper security software and firewalls in place to block cybercriminals.  

Cyberattacks and Your Practice 

Dental practices are full of technology that helps daily operations run smoothly. From digital x-rays and electronic medical records to patient management software and email, it may seem impossible to imagine your office without a plethora of modern technology. However, with these powerful tools, you also need extensive security measures to ensure your patients’ private information does not end up in the wrong hands.  

In 2021, there were 526 major HIPAA breaches that affected approximately 43.1 million individuals. That is just shy of 1 in every 8 Americans being affected by data breaches.  

Many practices have the dangerous mindset that just because they haven’t been a victim of an attack, they are completely safe from cybercrimes. But a breach can happen to any dental practice. Staying HIPAA compliant does not entirely eliminate the risk of breaches. However, it will reduce the risk of a breach happening to your practice, and helps you detect a breach early so you can respond in a timely, appropriate manner.  

Ransomware Attacks 

Ransomware is a common strategy cybercriminals use in dental practices. This type of attack blocks you from accessing data on your system by encrypting it and holding it hostage until the ransom is paid. The ultimate goal of ransomware is to swindle the practice into paying a hefty amount in exchange for their patients’ information. Ransomware attacks are up by more than 200% since 2018 and are a growing concern among healthcare professionals.  

It is prudent to create a plan for the possible event of your practice being a target in a ransomware attack. Here are some key steps have in place in case your practice experiences a ransomware attack: 

  • Contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or your local FBI office. Although it may be tempting to attempt to handle an attack internally, the government needs to be notified of these attacks to prevent attacks and foreign threats in the future. 
  • Notify any company bank accounts and credit cards. It is a good idea to create a document with the contact information for these businesses so you can alert them quickly.  
  • Make a list of all your hardware and software in your office. It is important to note that older PCs, laptops, printers, and routers are an easier target for cybercriminals because of the outdated software on these technologies. It is a smart practice to keep your software systems up to date and replace old technology.  
  • Back up your systems and change any access keys. 
  • Change your passwords and ensure they are strong. You also may want to consider initiating multifactor authentication.  
  • Even if you pay the ransom, you should replace all systems. Even though this may seem tedious, it is critical to ensure all malware is erased. Paying a ransom does not necessarily mean the malware is gone.  
  • Reinstall all programs in case the viruses are still present. 

Safeguards under the HIPAA Security Rule 

Covered entities are required under the HIPAA Security Rule to implement three types of safeguards to help them stay compliant, respond to emergencies efficiently, protect data, and address breaches quickly. The faster dental practices can respond to breaches, the better. Quicker responses are typically less costly than prolonged ones.   

Administrative Safeguards are policies and procedures your practice follows to comply with HIPAA. Employee training is essential to upholding this safeguard. Thorough training can prevent a new employee from clicking on a phishing email or downloading an attachment that could infect the computers with ransomware. Other examples of Administrative Safeguards are a contingency plan on how your practice responds to emergencies, determining classes on employees who have access to ePHI, and conducting internal audits for potential violations.  

Physical Safeguards refer to your practice’s physical control of accessing protected data. Common examples of Physical Safeguards are monitoring and controlling equipment that contains ePHI, limiting access to ePHI to only authorized individuals, implementing a required visitor sign-in, and separating patient-facing WIFI from your network that retains sensitive information.  

Technical Safeguards control access to computer systems to protect communications that have ePHI. IT experts can help your practice implement technical safeguards. Common Technical Safeguards used in dental offices are having a system that protects your information systems from unauthorized access, encrypting information when sent over networks, authenticating individuals when communicating with them, and conducting a risk analysis and risk management programs.  

Solutions to Protect Your Practice and Stay HIPAA Compliant  

As cyberattacks continue to increase in healthcare, HIPAA compliance and data security should be a top priority in your practice’s operations. Following the rules and regulations of HIPAA will help protect your patients’ information, reduce your risk of a cyberattack, and ensure you have strategic procedures in place to respond appropriately to a breach. To learn more about how Planet DDS solutions help practices protect their patient’s data and stay compliant with HIPAA, read this customer success story