Medicine is Risky
The practice of medicine is a risky business. There is always the risk that a certain treatment will fail to help a patient. There is a risk of being accused of malpractice. There is a risk of being accused of incorrectly billing a patient, insurance company or government agency. There is a risk of being sued by an employee or ex-employee for HR related issues. The list of risks goes on and on.
Healthcare is not unique when it comes to risk. Lawyers, accountants, architects and engineers all have associated business risk. In fact, it can be argued that every business has associated risk. The risk of a business failing is with every business no matter what vertical that business operates in. Just ask Enron and RadioShack and Joe’s pizza.
The key to business risk is how an organization manages the risk. Healthcare organizations have malpractice insurance which usually comes with a malpractice risk management program. The program identifies areas of risk, provides steps to reduce risk and defines steps to minimize impact of losses when they occur (PDF)
Risk management refers to strategies that reduce and minimize the possibility of an adverse outcome, harm, or a loss. The systematic gathering and utilization of data are essential to loss prevention. Good risk management techniques improve the quality of patient care and reduce the probability of an adverse outcome or a medical malpractice claim. This core curriculum outlines the attitudes, knowledge, and skills currently recommended for residents in the area of risk management. The primary goal of a successful risk management is to reduce untoward events to patients. Risk management programs are designed to reduce the risk to patients and resulting liability to the health care provider. Standard of care is the foundation for risk management. The main factors in risk management include the following.
Nonmedical and medical risk management is a three-step process which involves: 1) identifying risk; 2) avoiding or minimizing the risk of loss; and 3) reducing the impact of losses when they occur. Medical risk management focuses on risk reduction through improvement of patient care.
Patient Data Risk
The practice of creating, storing and accessing electronic patient data brings with it new risks to healthcare organizations. Sure in the past there was a risk of someone breaking into an office and stealing patients’ paper charts but the risk exponentially increases now that a majority of new patient data is electronic. All this data is spread across electronic health records (EHRs), patient portals, digital x-ray machines, email, desktops, laptops, USB drives, smartphones and tablets. There are risks of an employee mistake like losing a laptop with patient information or falling for a fake email that tricks them into giving up information that thieves can use to access and steal patient data.
Like any other business risk, the risk to patient data needs to be properly managed. Just like with a malpractice risk management program, the risk to patient data needs to be addresses with 3 steps:
- Identifying Risk – it is critical that organizations understand what risks are associated with electronic patient data. Where is the data stored or accessed? As mentioned previously, the data could be stored on servers in an office, in a cloud-based EHR, on laptops or mobile devices. It is critical to get a thorough inventory of all patient data that is created, stored or accessed. The next step is understanding the risk to all of this patient data. The risk to data stored on a digital ultrasound machine is much different than data stored on laptops that leave an office.
- Minimize Risk – once the various risks are identified to patient data, it is critical to take steps to reduce the risk. Implementing the proper safeguards such as security policies and procedures and employee training can go a long way to lower the risk to patient data.
- Reduce the Impact – unfortunately it is very difficult to eliminate the risk to patient data. Steps can be taken to lower the risk but the amount of patient data is increasing every day and the risk of employee mistakes or criminals stealing the data increases as well. Organizations need to have a plan in place to respond to a patient data breach. That plan may include a breach response program that defines the steps the organization will take if there is a breach, or ensuring that an organization’s IT department or company is prepared to respond and/or stop a suspected data breach. Reducing the impact of a patient data breach might include cyber insurance that will provide financial resources to help the organization in the event of a data breach.
Don’t Hate HIPAA
Many people I talk to tell me they hate HIPAA regulations. I don’t blame them. Most people don’t like forced government regulations that have the threat of audits and fines. But HIPAA regulations are really just a risk management program for patient data. HIPAA calls for organizations to take inventory of where patient information is created, stored or accessed. It requires organizations to identify and manage associated risk to patient data. And it calls for organizations to be prepared to respond and lower the impact if patient data is lost, stolen or breached. When compared to a malpractice risk management program, the HIPAA risk management program is very similar.
When I talk to people about HIPAA I make it clear that the risk of a random HIPAA audit is very low. But the risk that patient data is lost, stolen or breached is increasing every day. Patient data needs to be thought of as a business risk that needs to be properly managed.