Secure Medical Records Access: How Secure File Sharing Helps Hospitals Improve External Collaboration With EMRs

Medical records access is a prerequisite for delivering fast, effective, patient care. And lately it’s become a major challenge for healthcare IT organizations, who struggle to provide secure file sharing to physicians, nurses, and other healthcare stakeholders while ensuring compliance with HIPAA.

The issue of medical records access inevitably comes up against the adoption of electronic medical records (EMR). Read on to learn more about this important issue and how healthcare organizations address medical records access while supporting compliance with HIPAA.

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What Is Electronic Medical Information Security?

Electronic medical information security (EMIS) is a branch of information security concerned with protecting the privacy, integrity, and availability of patient health information that is stored, collected, and maintained electronically. It involves the application of a wide range of security measures, such as authentication, access control, encryption, and data backup, to protect protected health information (PHI) from unauthorized access, use, or manipulation. Electronic medical information security also includes physical security measures such as proper disposal of sensitive data and limiting access to systems where health information is stored.

EMIS is an important part of the overall cybersecurity strategy in healthcare, as medical information is increasingly digitized, and medical providers must protect their data from cyberattacks, such as ransomware and data breaches. An EMIS strategy includes identifying and responding to gaps in system security, regularly auditing systems to detect any security weaknesses, and ensuring HIPAA compliance. EMIS also involves developing procedures and policies to protect patient health information, such as data encryption and access control, as well as training staff in cybersecurity best practices.

Medical Records Access Challenges and EMRs

The American healthcare industry is undergoing a decades-long transition from paper-based patient records to electronic medical records (EMR). EMR—also known as electronic health records (EHR)—fulfill an important HIPAA goal, namely making patient records more portable and easier to share among patients, payers, and providers.

Hospitals have three major motivations for adopting EMR:

  • Improved­­ patient outcomes—EMRs make it easier for physicians and other care givers to have an up-to-date view of a patient’s status and medical history.
  • Increased efficiency—By replacing paper-based records with electronic records that can be instantly searched and shared, EMRs promise to make healthcare providers more efficient, ultimately saving time and money.
  • Regulatory incentives—Through the Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive programs, healthcare providers earn payments for the adoption and the meaningful use of EHR systems.

The benefits are clear, but the transition has been slow. As recently as 2012, 63% of U.S. physicians were still using fax machines to share Protected Health Information (PHI) with other physicians, providers, and payers. And fax volume has risen since then, hitting an all-time high in the U.S. healthcare industry in 2015.

Despite the promise of EMRs, incorporating them into medical staff workflows has been problematic. A recent KPMG survey found that most physicians are dissatisfied with current implementations of EMRs. Ironically, physicians find working with EMRs to be time-consuming and limiting because they don’t always integrate well with other systems.

What is protected under HIPAA-compliant document sharing?

HIPAA-compliant document sharing generally refers to the secure exchange of protected health information (PHI) between providers, patients, and other entities that are subject to HIPAA regulations. This information can include medical records, prescriptions, lab results, and billing information. This sharing is subject to strict controls and technical safeguards to ensure that the information is kept secure and confidential.

Other Challenges: Unstructured Data and Interoperability

Part of the problem involves data management. Medical records access too often turns out to be partial. While EMRs have unquestionably improved record-keeping for structured data, too often they fail to provide physicians and other medical staff with a fast, easy, and secure way of accessing, managing, and sharing unstructured patient data.

In healthcare, unstructured data includes medical imagery (X-rays, ultrasounds, etc.), pictures, physicians’ notes, videos and data from many sensors or wearables. IBM estimates that 80% of the data in healthcare is unstructured. By contrast, structured data is, for the purpose of simplification, numbers and words that can be easily collected and classified: patient names, social security numbers, insurance information, etc.

Until EMR solutions become more efficient and effective with unstructured data, providers need a fast, easy-to-use, and convenient way to share both structured and unstructured data with internal staff but also with external providers, physician groups and outpatient clinics. Currently, EMR systems struggle to integrate with other IT systems inside a hospital and many have difficulty interoperating with other healthcare providers’ EMR systems.

Until EMR solution providers and, to a lesser extent, healthcare IT professionals solve these interoperability problems and mirror the workflows necessary for safe and efficient patient care, healthcare providers will need to complement their EMR systems with file sharing solutions that:

  • support fast, secure communication between departments and between the provider and the external partner organizations
  • integrate with existing clinical workflows
  • secure both structured and unstructured data to protect patient privacy
  • help establish meaningful use

HITECH’s Role in Secure Medical Record Access

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act is a law that was passed in 2009 in the United States to promote the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology. HITECH expands the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, provides more enforcement and penalties for violations, and incentivizes the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs). It also provides incentives to healthcare organizations that adopt certified EHR technology and demonstrate meaningful use. Under the HITECH Act, various programs have been created that have made medical records more accessible to patients and providers.

The HITECH Security Rule, for example, requires protected health information to be maintained in a manner that ensures its security and privacy, which makes it easier for providers to share and retrieve medical records. Other provisions of the HITECH Act also support the electronic exchange of health information, including through electronic health records and health information networks. This makes it easier and faster for providers to access and retrieve medical records.

What Happens When There’s a Breach in Medical Records?

When there is a breach involving medical records, the responsible organization is required to notify the affected patients, per the HIPAA Notification Rule. All HIPAA-covered entities must notify affected individuals of any security breaches involving their protected health information (PHI) within 60 days of the breach. The notice includes information about what happened and what the affected individual can do to protect their information. The notification must be provided in plain language and be easily readable. It must include contact information for the covered entity, a description of the breach, a description of the affected PHI, steps the affected individual can take to protect their information, and a notice of their right to file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights.

Following a breach, the responsible organization must take steps to prevent further breaches. Depending on the nature of the breach, the organization may have to report the incident to the relevant government agency or law enforcement. The organization may also face legal liability, financial penalties, or be required to pay for credit monitoring services for affected patients. The responsible organization will also be required to evaluate the source of the breach and work to strengthen systems and procedures to minimize the risk of similar incidents in the future.

How Secure File Sharing Helps Hospitals Share Medical Records in Compliance With HIPAA

Secure file sharing solutions, such as the Kiteworks secure file sharing and governance platform, enable hospitals, health systems and other organizations to externally share structured and unstructured data with the highest levels of security and control. Supported by integrations with EMR systems as well as enterprise content management and cloud storage systems, a secure file sharing solution empowers healthcare providers to extend their existing applications, content and workflows, without costly content migrations or disruptions to processes. Secure file sharing solutions also provide fast, easy, and secure medical records access for authorized users from any device or location.

By implementing secure file sharing into healthcare workflows, healthcare organizations and their staff members improve medical records access and preserve PHI—critical for protecting patient privacy, demonstrating compliance with HIPAA, and EMR adoption.

To learn more about the Kiteworks secure file sharing and governance platform, schedule a custom demo of Kiteworks today.

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