In today’s digital age, where sensitive information is constantly being exchanged and accessed, ensuring the security of devices that ‘touch’ that sensitive information is paramount. Particularly for healthcare providers, and especially for mental health care providers – who are entrusted with safeguarding Protected Health Information (PHI) of the highest sensitivity. 

It’s important to understand that compliance with device security standards isn’t just a regulatory requirement – it’s a crucial aspect of creating and maintaining trust and upholding ethical responsibilities. By proactively addressing security vulnerabilities, you not only protect client information but also safeguard your practice’s reputation and longevity.

Understanding the Importance of Device Security in the Context of Safe Harbor & HIPAA

A lack of – or weak and insufficient – device security remains one of the largest ‘surface areas of risk exposure’ for therapy practices, posing significant threats to the ability to safeguard the confidentiality of Protected Health Information (PHI). The consequences of a security breach caused by inadequate device security can be dire, leading to stressful investigations, HIPAA violations, and compromised client trust. However, there’s a beacon of hope amidst these challenges – Safe Harbor.

Safe Harbor, under HIPAA’s Breach Notification Rule, offers a streamlined process for handling security incidents such as device loss or theft if adequate security measures are in place on all devices used to handle or access PHI – and documented as such. Essentially, if a device is lost or stolen but meets the requirements of Safe Harbor, the PHI on the device, and/or the PHI in systems that device has been used to access, remains secure, which mitigates the risk of a HIPAA Breach – and therefore the need for Breach Reporting and Breach Notification. 

Without Safe Harbor in place, it’s nigh impossible to forensically prove that a lost or stolen device did not contain PHI; that PHI on the device was secured (e.g. only kept in encrypted folders); or, to identify what PHI was on the device and therefore the scope of the potential breach and which clients are potentially impacted and need to be notified, when you do not have physical possession of the device. 

In the event of a security incident that is potentially a HIPAA Breach, the onus is on the HIPAA covered entity/healthcare provider to prove that a Breach did not occur. When it comes to security incidents that involve the theft or loss of a device, the only realistic means of being able to prove that a Breach did not occur is through having Safe Harbor in place. 

At PCT, we know that your center is your clients – not HIPAA –  so we want to emphasize and convey that device security *is* a vital component of how you care for your clients. Getting Safe Harbor in place is ultimately about so much more than avoiding the stress and impacts of a HIPAA Breach caused by a lack of device security, it’s about protecting clients.

Common Misconceptions and Realities

In today’s healthcare landscape, where cloud-based services dominate, there’s a common – and dangerous – misconception that devices pose minimal security risks since PHI primarily resides in the cloud. But this is a myth! PHI can easily find its way onto devices that are used to access cloud systems – like your HIPAA-secure EHR, practice email, etc., –  through various means, such as downloaded files and ‘cached’ information.

Even with use of HIPAA-secure cloud-based systems, the responsibility for device security and the vulnerabilities that the lack of sufficient device security can pose to the information in those cloud-systems is the responsibility of the practice. While the service provider/HIPAA Business Associate that provides those HIPAA-secure cloud-based systems is responsible for securing the data within their system and implementing all of the necessary technical, administrative and physical safeguards to do so, the threats and vulnerabilities posed by a compromised device being used to access their system is beyond the scope of both their responsibility and ability to control and lies with the user. (This is typically spelled out in the Terms of Service.) Therefore, it’s imperative to implement robust technical security measures across all devices, regardless of whether they’re practice-owned or personally owned, for any and every device that touches client info. 

Essential Technical Security Measures

The cornerstone of Safe Harbor is full device encryption (FDE). This ensures that when a device is at rest/in a locked state, all its data is encrypted, rendering it inaccessible without the encryption key that unlocks the encryption. 

But encryption alone isn’t sufficient for device Safe Harbor. There are a few tools – additional technical security measures – that therapists have to help keep PHI safe:

  • -Strong, unique passcodes or passwords are crucial to full device encryption, ensuring that the data remains secure even if the device falls into the wrong hands. Your encryption is only as strong as the password/passcode that unlocks the encryption. 
  • Enabling auto-lock and logout features at the minimum amount of time possible adds an extra layer of protection by helping to ensure that the encryption is active whenever the device is idle.

These technical security measures work in tandem to fortify your devices against potential breaches, providing peace of mind for your practice. There are additional technical security measures necessary for Safe Harbor, as there are 10 fundamental technical security measures that are required to meet the HIPAA Security Rule Standards that apply to devices – e.g. antimalware/antivirus, a firewall, ensuring the device is not sending data that contains client info to the device manufacturer, etc., – those details are a little outside the scope of this article, however. 

Making Device Security Accessible

The great news is that securing devices to Safe Harbor standards doesn’t have to be daunting, or expensive. With the right resources and guidance, implementing technical security measures becomes accessible to all practices. 

One of the supportive resources we provide at Person Centered Tech for members of our Practice Care Premium service is our Device Security Center (one for solo practitioners and one for group practices) with step-by-step device-specific tutorial videos that walk you through configuring each of the 10 technical security measures necessary for a Safe Harbor *and* for making a device safe and appropriate to be used to handle client info and access systems that contain client info, along with documentation forms so that you can properly document your device security and Safe Harbor qualification. The PCT Device Security Center was created to empower and equip therapists to efficiently and effectively ensure you have secured your devices and have Safe Harbor in place.  

Conclusion

It is clear that ensuring device security is not only essential but also achievable for every practice. By embracing technical security measures and leveraging the right resources, you can navigate the complexities of HIPAA compliance with confidence.

Take proactive steps today to secure your devices and pave the way for a safer, more resilient practice tomorrow. Join us on this journey towards Safe Harbor and unlock the peace of mind that comes with knowing your practice is fortified against security threats posed by unsecured and vulnerable devices. Vulnerability is for your clients, not your devices or your practice. 

 

Learn more about device security:

This is Step 3: Devices  — of the PCT Way for optimizing & fortifying your practice.

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Group Practices

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