Guide to HIPAA Compliant Cloud Storage

6 min read Michael Carroll on Mar 27, 2020

Technological advances have provided countless benefits for patient care, from magnetic resonance imaging to improved doctor-patient communication. Many healthcare providers are shifting to cloud-based computing, modernizing operations in ways never before imagined. As these organizations seek to leverage HIPAA compliant apps, they need to make sure they select HIPAA compliant cloud storage. With that in-hand, these organizations can take advantage of the latest innovation and resources while also meeting business compliance standards.

Cloud Storage and HIPAA Guidelines

Is cloud computing an acceptable way for healthcare organizations to store protected health information (or PHI)? The short answer is yes. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services specifically prepared guidelines explaining how HIPAA affects cloud computing and what businesses can do to comply with HIPAA’s Security Rule and Privacy Rule. As long as these rules are followed, cloud storage is compatible with HIPAA.

Like many aspects of online business, cloud computing can streamline day-to-day processes significantly. However, increased productivity cannot sacrifice data security. In today’s digital age, it’s more important than ever to safeguard private health information. One of the primary reasons that HIPAA guidelines exist is to ensure patient data remains safe and secure.

HIPAA regulations apply to numerous organizations that interact with patients. Large hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes are covered entities, and so are doctors, psychologists, and dentists with private practices. Other healthcare businesses required to comply with HIPAA rules are healthcare clearinghouses, health insurance providers, and HMOs. Before making the switch to cloud computing, these organizations need to analyze HIPAA guidelines to ensure that their online data is stored appropriately.

Important HIPAA Terms Explained:

  • HIPAA: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is legislation designed to ensure the privacy and security of patient information. Organizations subject to HIPAA guidelines have to implement and follow strict rules about how they store, share, secure, and use patient health information. One of the main goals of HIPAA is to prevent data breaches.

  • Cloud Storage: Cloud computing refers to accessing, storing, and processing data over the Internet. With cloud storage, an organization’s software, databases, networking, data storage, and analytics are all moved online. Instead of hosting files on an in-house server or computer hard drive, the information is stored remotely.

  • CSP: A cloud service provider is responsible for offering cloud computing services. This type of company manages specialized servers with massive amounts of data storage. Many CSPs also provide analytics tools, applications, encryption features, and advanced security.

  • PHI or ePHI: Electronic protected health information is personal data that is stored, transmitted, received, or created in a digital format. PHI consists of 18 HIPAA identifiers that include any information related to a patient’s identity or health demographic data. For example, treatment records, test results, diagnoses, and X-rays are all PHI. 

  • Encryption: The technology for encryption takes information, such as text documents or invoices, and scrambles it. Encryption uses a series of complex mathematical algorithms. To access or read the data, users must have the matching key.

The Advantages of HIPAA Compliant Cloud Storage

There are many reasons why cloud computing is attractive to modern healthcare organizations. For one thing, it reduces the amount of physical space required for onsite data storage. Cloud computing essentially delivers turnkey solutions. Here are several additional benefits:

  • Cost-Effective Data Storage: Rather than purchasing and maintaining in-house servers, businesses can maximize cost savings by outsourcing information storage to the cloud. This can reduce or eliminate the need for hiring IT professionals. It can also cut down on the amount of energy used.

  • Broad Accessibility: One of the most significant advantages of switching to a cloud-based storage platform is the ability to connect with files on the go. Doctors, nurses, EMTs, billing personnel, administrators, and other professionals can access required PHI securely from any location.

  • Effective Resource Pooling: Using cloud computing databases, physicians can see information related to lab tests, pharmacy prescriptions, and patient allergies, allowing them to make better diagnoses. When doctors can collaborate and share data securely, the entire organization benefits.

  • Dependable Data Backup and Information Recovery: Since cloud storage keeps PHI safe in a remote location, it enables healthcare businesses to bounce back from emergencies. Even after floods, fires, and other natural disasters, patient records are still available.

  • On-Demand Resources and Scalability: Unlike onsite servers, cloud-based services can adapt almost instantly to increased demand and bandwidth needs. This ensures that patients and medical professionals can retrieve records no matter how many users are online simultaneously.

  • Enhanced Speed and Performance: Many companies dedicated to high-quality cloud computing invest in the latest hardware and software upgrades. This can provide smoother user experiences and reduce latency, especially where consumers are concerned.

In some cases, cloud storage offers increased data security compared to in-house digital storage. In the past, theft of laptops, cellphones, or paper forms may have meant the loss of PHI in addition to major HIPAA violations. By storing all PHI on the cloud instead of local devices, this threat is virtually eliminated.

HIPAA Security Considerations for Cloud Computing

With advances in technology, the benefits of cloud storage come with certain dangers. In reality, any type of digital data storage has inherent security risks, and web-based solutions face additional threats to information. Effective cloud computing solutions must be able to protect against hacking, cyberattacks, and malware. This requires staying at the cutting edge of antivirus technology and internet security.

To comply with HIPAA standards, PHI must be kept secure at all times. Healthcare organizations must implement technical safeguards for transmitting patient data to and from the cloud, ensuring that only authorized users can access it. In addition, PHI must be adequately protected at rest, or while stored on CSP platforms. In many cases, this means ensuring that stored data is encrypted.

Not complying with HIPAA is a severe matter for healthcare businesses of any size. Violations can lead to hefty penalties, lawsuits, and loss of client trust. The maximum civil fine for deliberate violations is $50,000 per event and $1.5 million per year. In addition, the negative publicity surrounding any data breach can severely impact the profits and client base of medical professionals.

Tips for Getting Started With HIPAA Compliant Cloud Storage

The first step in setting up HIPAA compliant cloud storage is selecting an appropriate CSP. The platform chosen has a massive impact on PHI security. Any prospective CSP needs to supply healthcare organizations with a Business Associate Agreement. The BAA is essentially a contract between the CSP and medical professionals. This document sets out the responsibilities of the CSP regarding PHI safeguards, and it requires platforms to comply with HIPAA standards.

However, this doesn’t automatically mean that the CSP is a good fit for healthcare providers or that its data security is adequate. That’s why the next step in HIPAA compliance is performing a comprehensive risk assessment, which is a key part of your company’s HIPAA compliance checklist. This often involves requesting a third-party evaluation of platform security. In reality, risk management should be an ongoing thing due to the importance of preventing data breaches.

Ways To Ensure Best Practices for Privacy and Security

To avoid violations, the cloud computing solution chosen must always adhere to HIPAA guidelines. Nevertheless, it’s essential to understand that this doesn’t free the healthcare organization’s personnel from user responsibility. Data owners are still required to follow the HIPAA Security Rule and Privacy Rule. Here are four areas to focus on:

  • Encryption: While not explicitly required, encrypting data is a best practice for compliance. That way, data is protected in the event of a breach because it’s not viewable or usable by unauthorized personnel. Some organizations opt to encrypt PHI before transmitting to the cloud storage platform, thereby increasing security layers, though this can interfere with certain cloud-based apps.

  • Secure Logins: Access control is required and vital for guaranteeing the privacy and security of PHI. Users should need secure login credentials to use any electronic device with a connection to the platform, as well as for accessing the platform itself.

  • Authentication: Dual-authentication is recommended as an additional layer of security. This feature involves matching passwords with user IDs. Another option for preventing unauthorized access is timed logout functionality, which automatically logs users out of the platform after a certain amount of time.

  • Employee Training: All of the technology in the world can’t guarantee HIPAA compliance if employees don’t understand the proper way to handle PHI. The company’s security policy and related training should instill best practices at every step. Personnel should understand the Privacy Rule and Security Rule, and be able to recognize the difference between appropriate PHI disclosure and violations.

Many violations occur because of human error or incorrect access procedures. With proper training and excellent security safeguards in place, organizations can enjoy the benefits of cloud computing while minimizing any risks.