Third-party access control in healthcare is key to avoiding regulatory noncompliance and fines

Safeguarding patient data is critical for healthcare organizations. Strong cybersecurity protects patients and avoids regulatory noncompliance. One essential solution to mitigating cyber risk is third-party access control. 

In today's digital age, the healthcare industry faces numerous challenges in safeguarding protected health information (PHI). With reliance on third-party vendors and the near-constant threat of cyberattacks, it is imperative that organizations prioritize secure vendor access. Failure to do so can not only result in a cyberattack and grind operations to a halt, but also in noncompliance with HIPAA and can bring regulatory fines.

The consequences of noncompliance

It’s no secret that noncompliance with privacy regulations has financial and reputational consequences. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been actively enforcing compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for years. But now we’re seeing more enforcement related to cybersecurity best practices, especially in the event of a ransomware attack.

We recently saw this when the OCR settled a $40,000 fine after a ransomware attack at Green Ridge Behavioral Health affected the PHI of more than 14,000 individuals. According to the OCR's investigation, there was evidence of HIPAA Privacy and Security Rule violations leading up to, and at the time of the breach. This included failure to:

  • Conduct regular and thorough reviews of potential risks and vulnerabilities to PHI
  • Implement security measures to reduce risks to a reasonable level
  • Sufficiently monitor system activity to guard against cyberattack

The settlement highlights how compliance must include proactively addressing security risks. Third-party access is a critical component to consider, as healthcare vendors often have over-privileged and broad access that greatly increases the organization’s vulnerability to data breaches, loss of PHI, and regulatory noncompliance.

What organizations can do to prevent noncompliance

According to the OCR, the primary cyberthreats in the healthcare sector are hacking and ransomware. The OCR observed a 256% increase in reports of large breaches involving hacking in the last five years, along with a 264% increase in ransomware reports. In 2023, the large breaches reported to the OCR affected more than 134 individuals — an increase of 141% from 2022 – and 79% of those breaches were hacking incidents.

The OCR recommends the following cybersecurity best practices for any organization covered by HIPAA:

  • Provide regular training specific to employee workflows, reinforcing everyone’s role in data security and privacy
  • Employ multifactor authentication to ensure that only authorized users can access PHI
  • Make sure that all business associate agreements appropriately address obligations relating to security incidents
  • Regularly conduct risk analysis and management processes, particularly when planning for new technology or operations
  • Implement audit controls to record and analyze system activity, and regularly review this information
  • Encrypt PHI to protect against unauthorized access
  • Use prior security incidents to determine how security processes should be improved

With the importance of securing third-party access, it’s clear that a vendor privileged access management solution is essential to meet many of the above OCR recommendations.

How vendor privileged access management helps with HIPAA compliance

A vendor privileged access management solution provides third-party identity management to prevent unauthorized vendor access. It also provides granular controls to ensure that vendors can only access what they need, and nothing more. If they don't need access to PHI, they don't have it. If they do need access, granular controls and policies ensure that it is as least-privileged as possible.

Meanwhile, robust audit capabilities allow organizations to monitor and review system activity. Video recordings enable organizations to record, examine and regularly review information system activity of their vendors. This allows organizations to address potential issues before they escalate. Along with granular controls, regular audits demonstrate a commitment to HIPAA compliance. In addition, audits help organizations understand how to update access control policies to align with continually evolving regulations.

Control third-party access to ensure regulatory compliance

Healthcare organizations face increasing regulatory scrutiny and cybersecurity threats. Consequently, a strong vendor privileged access management solution is crucial in mitigating vendor access risks and avoiding noncompliance and hefty regulatory fines, while also protecting patient data.

These proactive measures safeguard sensitive information and enhance the overall trust and confidence patients place in their healthcare providers.

Learn about how Imprivata Vendor Privileged Access Management (formerly SecureLink Enterprise Access) can help.