Tracking Technologies and HIPAA

The healthcare sector has undergone a digital transformation, relying heavily on technology to enhance efficiency and patient care. This blog delves into the complexities of HIPAA compliance in the digital age, focusing on the challenges healthcare organizations face in safeguarding patient privacy amidst technological advancements. The blog is based on OCRs guidance posted in March 2024.

To begin with this topic we must consider that HIPAA compliance is paramount in today’s digital era to uphold patient privacy rights and build trust between healthcare providers and patients. Failure to comply with HIPAA regulations can result in severe penalties, emphasizing the significance of adherence in safeguarding sensitive health information.

At the same time, we need to transition into the essential aspects of HIPAA compliance in the digital realm, including the definition and examples of tracking technologies, their implications for patient privacy, and compliance obligations for healthcare organizations. 

What are Tracking Technologies?

Tracking technologies encompass various digital tools used to monitor and collect information about user interactions with websites or mobile applications. Examples include cookies, web beacons, and session replay scripts, which enable organizations to track user behavior and gather data for analysis.

  • Cookies are small pieces of data stored on a user’s device to track browsing activity.
  • Web beacons are transparent images embedded in webpages to monitor user interactions.
  • Session replay scripts capture and record user behavior on websites.

Tracking technologies may be used for data analysis, providing valuable insights into user behavior, preferences, and trends. By analyzing this data, organizations can optimize their digital platforms, improve user experience, and tailor services to meet user needs effectively.

HIPAA Rules and Tracking Technologies

HIPAA establishes stringent regulations to protect protected health information (PHI), including the Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules. These rules govern the use, disclosure, and security of PHI, requiring healthcare organizations to implement measures to safeguard patient privacy and data security. This includes implementing safeguards, obtaining patient consent, and entering into business associate agreements with third-party vendors.

At the same time, mishandling PHI can lead to severe consequences, including financial penalties, legal liabilities, and reputational damage. Healthcare organizations must prioritize the protection of PHI to mitigate risks and uphold patient trust and confidentiality. Tracking technologies could also be categorized into User-Authenticated pages and Unauthenticated pages.

User-Authenticated Webpages

User-authenticated webpages require users to log in or provide authentication credentials to access content or services. Examples include patient portals and telehealth platforms, which contain sensitive health information accessible only to authorized users.

Regulated entities must ensure that tracking technologies on user-authenticated webpages comply with HIPAA regulations, including implementing security measures and obtaining patient consent. In this case, business associate agreements (BAAs) play a vital role as individuals accesing these pages may be protected by HIPAA which in turn creates the relationship of business associate with any subcontractor that have access to the customer data in these pages. 

BAAs are contract documents that establish the responsibilities of third-party vendors in safeguarding PHI and complying with HIPAA regulations. BAAs are required under HIPAA and among other things the same provide healthcare organizations the right to enforce HIPAA-compliant practices and mitigate risks associated with unauthorized access or breaches of PHI.

Tracking on Unauthenticated Webpages

Unauthenticated webpages are publicly accessible sections of websites that do not require user authentication. One of the challenges with these webpages is that Organizations must assess tracking technologies on these webpages to determine if they access PHI and implement appropriate safeguards for HIPAA compliance. If PHI is collected, organizations must implement encryption, access controls, and privacy policies to protect patient privacy and comply with HIPAA regulations.

Since Unauthenticated Webpages present a challenge to ensure HIPAA compliance we recommend the following actions:

  • Conduct thorough assessments,
  • Implement security measures
  • Update privacy policies, and
  • Conduct regular reviews of tracking practices.

Mobile Apps

Mobile health apps represent another risk to Organizations and Business Associates as some of them handle sensitive PHI such as medical records and diagnostic data on an ongoing basis. Once more, we must consider HIPAA compliance as an essential requirement to safeguard patient privacy and protect against security threats inherent in mobile technology.

For those using mobile apps it is critical they understand the risks associated with collecting PHI via Mobile Apps such as unauthorized access, data breaches, and privacy violations. Once more it is the responsibility of Healthcare entities and their business associates to implement security measures and a robust HIPAA Security program. 

HIPAA Compliance Obligations

When we refer to HIPAA Compliance obligations we refer to activities such as: 

  • Minimizing Disclosures of PHI: Healthcare entities must minimize disclosures of PHI to protect patient privacy and comply with HIPAA regulations. This involves limiting the sharing of PHI to only essential information required for authorized purposes and implementing strict access controls and data management protocols.
  • Obtaining HIPAA-Compliant Authorizations: Obtaining HIPAA-compliant authorizations from individuals before disclosing their PHI is essential to respect patient autonomy and privacy rights. Healthcare entities must obtain explicit consent from patients for any disclosures of PHI not covered under HIPAA’s permissible uses and disclosures.
  • Establishing Business Associate Agreements: Establishing BAAs with third-party vendors is crucial for maintaining HIPAA compliance and protecting PHI. These agreements outline the responsibilities of business associates in safeguarding PHI and ensure compliance with HIPAA regulations throughout the data lifecycle.
  • Implementing Safeguards for ePHI: Healthcare entities must implement robust safeguards for ePHI to ensure its confidentiality, integrity, and availability. This includes encryption, access controls, and regular risk assessments to prevent unauthorized access or disclosure of ePHI and comply with HIPAA’s security requirements.
  • Reporting Breaches of Unsecured PHI: Healthcare entities have a legal obligation to report breaches of unsecured PHI to affected individuals, HHS, and, in some cases, the media. Timely and accurate reporting of breaches is crucial to mitigate risks to affected individuals and comply with HIPAA’s breach notification requirements.

This by far a topic that most of us have overlooked in the past but its significance can no longer be ignored. At the same time, some of the variables are quite complex and could be seen as overwhelming without the proper training and guidance but do not despair as we have some suggestions that may be just the right answer for you.

  • EPI Compliance. An online platform that cover HIPAA Security, HIPAA Privacy and other compliance topics. This platform provide policies, online forms, training and monthly tasks to ensure compliance remains in the forefront.
  • Taino Consultants. We are here to help and have been doing so for almost 30 years. For us everything is customized so let us know what your situation is and we will provide an executable plan of action.   

Whatever route you decide to take make sure that you pay attention to this topic.