For ambulance services, HIPAA compliance is a particularly sensitive issue. Because of the sensitive nature of the health data that EMS and EMT professionals deal with on a daily basis, HIPAA Privacy and Security standards must be carefully adhered to.
This issue becomes even more sensitive when you consider that most of the data collected during pre-hospital care will likely be collected, tracked, and documented on a mobile device. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets are indispensable tools for ambulance care. Most of these devices will have access to electronic health records (EHR) platforms, which will in turn be connected to the rest of a hospital’s EHR data.
While mobile devices can provide convenience in life-or-death situations, they are also particularly vulnerable to the risk of a data breach. A data breach of unsecured health information can lead to serious HIPAA violations and put patient privacy at risk.
The kind of health information that these devices have access to is called protected health information, or PHI. PHI is any demographic information that can be used to identify a patient. Common examples of PHI include names, dates of birth, medical information, insurance ID numbers, addresses, full facial photos, and telephone numbers, to name a few.
The HIPAA Rules set specific standards for maintaining the privacy, security, and integrity of PHI. Though the regulation can seem complex, the standards are in place to safeguard PHI. As per HIPAA, ambulance services necessarily fall under the category of Covered Entities, meaning that they are responsible for maintaining compliance with both the HIPAA Privacy Rule and the HIPAA Security Rule.
These two rules set limits for how and when PHI must be stored and accessed. Below, we list a few of the major components of the HIPAA Rules that all ambulance services can implement in order to keep PHI safe and secure on the go.
- All mobile devices that can access PHI must have full-disc encryption. Additionally, all devices should be routinely backed-up on encrypted servers. In the event that a device is lost or stolen, full-disc encryption will keep hackers or thieves from accessing sensitive health data.
- Your organization should have HIPAA policies and procedures in place pertaining to mobile devices taken “off-site.” This would necessarily include all laptops, tablets, and smartphones with access to PHI that are used in pre-hospital care in an ambulance. By outlining when devices are permitted to be used, who is permitted to use them, and how they are to be handled in off-site settings, your organization will mitigate the risk to PHI stored on these devices.
- Keep a full inventory of all devices within your organization that can access or handle PHI in any way. Routine check-ups on the condition and location of devices listed in your inventory will help ensure that devices are not misplaced. And in the event that a device is misplaced or stolen, organization officials will notice as soon as the inventory is reviewed so that action can be taken to remedy the breach.
- Access to PHI on mobile devices and in pre-hospital settings should be limited only to essential members of the organization’s workforce. This is known as the Minimum Necessary Standard. It’s a part of the HIPAA Privacy Rule that states that access to PHI must be limited based on employees’ roles, and that when access is granted, it should be limited to the minimum access necessary for each employee to perform their role.
These are just a few of the ways that ambulance services can protect PHI and comply with HIPAA mobile device standards.
In addition to the actions listed above, a total compliance program that addresses the full extent of the law must be in place in order to prevent HIPAA violations and data breaches.
Addressing HIPAA compliance can help ambulance services confidently treat their patients without worrying about the risk of data breaches or government fines.