The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) contains a whole chapter called HITECH. This catchy acronym stands for Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health and makes you wonder if “they” construct the acronym before deciding on what information to convey. It basically mandates a number of fairly stringent disclosure requirements for HIPAA covered entities and their business associates  in the case of privacy  breaches leading to the disclosure of patient data. The act is intentionally aggressive in order to entice health care providers and insurance companies to be really cautious about patient privacy and record security.
I am at HIMSS in Atlanta this week and I notice that ARRA, HITECH, HIPAA and other related topics are front and center in many sessions and for many vendors on the floor.
Under HITECH, the burden of proof is on the side of the covered entity to prevent a breach, discover the breach, and then disclose the breach to the patients and – in some cases – to the secretary of health and human services. If the breach is affecting 500 or more patients in a state or region, the covered entity must notify the patients via public media and notify HHS immediately. 
So, let’s define what a breach really is, and then what you can do to never having to call your local newspaper for the disclosure ad.

Under HITECH, a breach is an “unauthorized acquisition, use, or disclosure that compromises the security or privacy of the health record”. There’s also something in the language that this must pose a significant risk of financial, reputational, or other harm to the individual. Note that I am not a lawyer, but I did stay in a holiday….. tonight. Kidding aside, I did listen to Gerry Hinkley and Deven KcGraw during their HIMSS session this week – both are legal experts in this field.

So, having a laptop with unencrypted, and personally identifiable patient information stolen would be a breach. If, however, the data is secured with federally accepted levels of encryption (and the security of the key is not compromised), OR the data does not include certain items such as DOB or the patient’s ZIP code, it’s not a breach.
As you can see, the devil is in the detail. So, how can you take steps to avoid that painful disclosure? For one, ensure that the patient information never leaves your data center. Leverage desktop or application virtualization and disable clipboard and local disk access on the client device. Many electronic health applications can only print through the server, so that client connected printers are not needed and can also turned off without compromising functionality. If mobile access to the data is needed, consider the Citrix Receiver for the iPhone or mobile access platform of your choice to deliver the information without delivering the data.
Even without HITECH, these are important considerations for any Electronic Medical Records (EMR) rollout. When done correctly, you could allow your doctors, nurses, and staffers to use the laptop, netbook, tablet, iPad of their choice without having to worry about IT managing the myriad of devices or any of them leaving the premises.

Now, unfortunately, this is only one aspect of HITECH. The other aspect involves the unauthorized access  of patient records by employees who have legitimate access to the systems, but are basically snooping around. HITECH covers privacy breaches, not just security breaches.  Looking up your own lab results, or the chart of your friend’s sick kid is an example of a well intentioned, but illegal breach. Looking up the local football player’s records to determine if that hamstring injury has healed before Sunday’s game is also an illegal breach, but not an innocent one.  Identifying those scenarios actually requires intelligent data mining to assess whether access was justified for a person to do their job or constitutes a breach. While you can’t fix the latter category through application or desktop virtualization, you can confidently use virtualization technology to prevent breaches through the loss of devices or data without restricting mobility. One less thing to worry about in the complex world of healthcare regulation.

Questions? Comments?
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