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E-Patient Update:  Registration Can Add Value To Care 

Posted on August 15, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

For those of you who end up seeking care in hospital emergency departments now and again, the following will probably be familiar. You’re spending the precious few minutes you get with the ED doc discussing your situation, having a test done or asking a nurse some rather personal questions, and a hapless man or woman shows up and inserts themselves into the moment. Why? Because they want to collect registration information.

While these clerks are typically pleasant enough, and their errand relatively brief, their interruption has consequences. In my case, their entry into the room has sometimes caused a nurse or doctor to lose their train of thought, or an explanation in progress was never finished. As if that weren’t irritating enough, the registration clerk – at least at my local community hospital – typically asks questions I’ve already answered previously, or asks me to sign forms I could easily have reviewed at an earlier stage in the process.

Not only that, there have been at least a couple of situations in which a nurse or doctor was so distracted by the clerk’s arrival that some reasonably important issues didn’t get handled. Don’t get me wrong, the skilled team at this facility recovered and addressed these issues before they could escalate, but there’s no guarantee that this will always happen, particularly if the patient isn’t used to keeping track of their care process.

Also, given that alarm fatigue is already leading to patient care mistakes and near-misses, it seems odd that this hospital would squeeze yet another distraction into its ED routine. At least the alarms are intended to serve as clinical decision support and avoid needless errors. Collecting my street address a second time doesn’t rise to that level of importance.

Of course, hospitals need the information the clerk collects, for a variety of legal and operational reasons. I have no problem signing a form giving it permission to bill my insurer, affirming that I don’t need disability accommodations or agreeing to a facility’s “no smoking on campus” policy. And I certainly want any provider that treats me to have full and accurate insurance information, as I obviously don’t want to be billed for the care myself!  But is it really necessary to interrupt a vital care process to accomplish this?

As I see it, verifying registration information could be done much more effectively if it took place at a different point in the sequence of care – at the moment when physicians decide whether to discharge or admit that patient.  After all, if the patient is well enough to answer questions and sign forms while lying in an ED bed, they’re likely to remain so through the admissions process, and verify their financial and personal information once they’re settled (or even while they’re waiting to be transported to their bed). Meanwhile, if the patient is being discharged, they could just as easily provide signatures and personal data as they prepare to leave.

But the above would simply make registration less intrusive. What about adding real value to the process, for both the hospital and the patient? Instead of having a clerk gather this information, why not provide the patient with a tablet which presents the needed information, allowing patients to enter or edit their personal details at leisure.

Then, as they digitally sign off on registration, it would be a great time to ask the patient a few details which help the facility understand the patient’s need for support and care coordination. Why not find out, before the patient is discharged, whether they have a primary care doctor or relevant specialist, whether they can afford their medications, whether they can get to post-discharge visits and the like? This improves results for the patient and ties in with a value-based focus on continuity of care.

These days, it’s not enough just to eliminate pointless workflow disruptions. Let’s leverage the amazing consumer IT platforms we have to make things better!

ONC Announces Winners Of FHIR App Challenge

Posted on August 3, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

The ONC has announced the first wave of winners of two app challenges, both of which called for competitors to use FHIR standards and open APIs.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m skeptical that market forces can solve our industry’s broad interoperability problems, even if they’re supported and channeled by a neutral intermediary like ONC. But there’s little doubt that FHIR has the potential to provide some of the benefits of interoperability, as we’ll see below.

Winners of Phase 1 of the agency’s Consumer Health Data Aggregator Challenge, each of whom will receive a $15,000 award, included the following:

  • Green Circle Health’s platform is designed to provide a comprehensive family health dashboard covering the Common Clinical Data Set, using FHIR to transfer patient information. This app will also integrate patient-generated health data from connected devices such as wearables and sensors.
  • The Prevvy Family Health Assistant by HealthCentrix offers tools for managing a family’s health and wellness, as well as targeted data exchange. Prevvy uses both FHIR and Direct messaging with EMRs certified for Meaningful Use Stage 2.
  • Medyear’s mobile app uses FHIR to merge patient records from multiple sources, making them accessible through a single interface. It displays real-time EMR updates via a social media-style feed, as well as functions intended to make it simple to message or call clinicians.
  • The Locket app by MetroStar Systems pulls patient data from different EMRs together onto a single mobile device. Other Locket capabilities include paper-free check in and appointment scheduling and reminders.

ONC also announced winners of the Provider User Experience Challenge, each of whom will also get a $15,000 award. This part of the contest was dedicated to promoting the use of FHIR as well, but participants were asked to show how they could enhance providers’ EMR experience, specifically by making clinical workflows more intuitive, specific to clinical specialty and actionable, by making data accessible to apps through APIs. Winners include the following:

  • The Herald platform by Herald Health uses FHIR to highlight patient information most needed by clinicians. By integrating FHIT, Herald will offer alerts based on real-time EMR data.
  • PHRASE (Population Health Risk Assessment Support Engine) Health is creating a clinical decision support platform designed to better manage emerging illnesses, integrating more external data sources into the process of identifying at-risk patients and enabling the two-way exchange of information between providers and public health entities.
  • A partnership between the University of Utah Health Care, Intermountain Healthcare and Duke Health System is providing clinical decision support for timely diagnosis and management of newborn bilirubin according to evidence-based practice. The partners will integrate the app across each member’s EMR.
  • WellSheet has created a web application using machine learning and natural language processing to prioritize important information during a patient visit. Its algorithm simplifies workflows incorporating multiple data sources, including those enabled by FHIR. It then presents information in a single screen.

As I see it, the two contests don’t necessarily need to be run on separate tracks. After all, providers need aggregate data and consumers need prioritized, easy-to-navigate platforms. But either way, this effort seems to have been productive. I’m eager to see the winners of the next phase.

E-Patient Update:  When EMRs Didn’t Matter, But Should Have

Posted on July 27, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

The other day I went to an urgent care clinic, suffering from a problem which needed attention promptly. This clinic is part of the local integrated health system’s network, where I’ve been seen for nearly 20 years. This system uses Epic everywhere in its network to coordinate care.

I admittedly arrived rather late and close to when the clinic was going to close. But I truly didn’t want to make a wasteful visit to the ED, so I pressed on and presented myself to the receptionist. And sadly, that’s where things got a bit hairy.

The receptionist said: “We’ve already got five patients to see so we can’t see anyone else.” Uncomfortable as I was, I fought back with what seemed like logic to me: “I need help and a hospital would be a waste. Could someone please check my medical records? The doctors will understand what I need and why it’s urgent.”

The receptionist got the nurse, who said “I’m sorry, but we aren’t seeing any more patients today.” I asked, “But what about the acuity of a given case, such as mine for example? Can’t you prioritize me? It’s all in my medical records and I know you’re online with Epic!”  She shook her head at me and walked away.

I sat in reception for a while, too irritated to walk out and too uncomfortable to let go of the issue. Man, it was no fun, and I called those folks some not-nice things in my mind – but more than anything else, wondered why they wouldn’t look at data on a well-documented patient like me for even a moment.

About 20 minutes before the place officially closed for the night, a nurse practitioner I know (let’s call him Ed) walked out into the waiting room and asked me what I needed. I explained in just a few words what I was after. Ed, who had reviewed my record, knew what I needed, knew why it was important and made it happen within five minutes. Officially, he wasn’t supposed to do that, but he felt comfortable helping because he was well-informed.

Truthfully, I realize this story is relatively trivial, but as I see it, it brings an important issue to the fore. And the issue is that even when seeing chronically-ill patients such as myself, whose comings and goings are well documented, providers can’t or won’t do much to exploit that data.

You hear a lot of talk about big data and analytics, and how they’ll change healthcare or even the world as we know it. But what about finding ways to better use “small data” produced by a single patient? It seems to me that clinicians don’t have the right tools to take advantage of a single patient’s history, or find it too difficult to do so. Either way, though, something must be done.

I know from personal experience that if clinicians don’t know my history, they can’t treat me efficiently and may drive up costs by letting me get sicker. And we need more Eds out there making the save. So let’s make the chart do a better job of mining patient’s data. Otherwise, having an EMR hardly matters.

VA May Drop VistA For Commercial EHR

Posted on July 12, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

It’s beginning to look like the famed VistA EHR may be shelved by the Department of Veterans Affairs, probably to be replaced by a commercial EHR rollout. If so, it could spell the end of the VA’s involvement in the highly-rated open source platform, which has been in use for 40 years. It will be interesting to see how the commercial EHR companies that support Vista would be impacted by this decision.

The first rumblings were heard in March, when VA CIO LaVerne Council  suggested that the VA wasn’t committed to VistA. Now Council, who supervises the agency’s $4 billion IT budget, sounds a bit more resolved. “I have a lot of respect for VistA but it’s a 40-year-old product,” Council told Politico. “Looking at what technology can do today that it couldn’t do then — it can do a lot.”

Her comments were echoed by VA undersecretary for health David Shulkin, who last month told a Senate hearing that the agency is likely to replace VistA with commercial software.

Apparently, the agency will leave VistA in place through 2018. At that point, the agency expects to begin creating a cloud-based platform which may include VistA elements at its core, Politico reports. Council told the hearing that VA IT leaders expect to work with the ONC, as well as the Department of Defense, in building its new digital health platform.

Particularly given its history, which includes some serious fumbles, it’s hardly surprising that some Senate members were critical of the VA’s plans. For example, Sen. Patty Murray said that she was still disappointed with the agency’s 2013 decision back to call of plans for an EHR that integrated fully with the DoD. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal expressed frustration as well. “The decades of unsuccessful attempts to establish an electronic health record system that is compatible across the VA in DoD has caused hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted,” he told the committee.

Now, the question is what commercial system the VA will select. While all the enterprise EHR vendors would seem to have a shot, it seems to me that Cerner is a likely bet. One major reason to anticipate such a move is that Cerner and its partners recently won the $4.3 billion contract to roll out a new health IT platform for the DoD.

Not only that, as I noted in a post earlier this year, the buzz around the deal suggested that Cerner won the DoD contract because it was seen as more open than Epic. I am taking no position on whether there’s any truth to this belief, nor how widespread such gossip may be. But if policymakers or politicians do see Cerner as more interoperability-friendly, that will certainly boost the odds that the VA will choose Cerner as partner.

Of course, any EHR selection process can take crazy turns, and when you grow in politics the process can even crazier. So obviously, no one knows what the VA will do. In fact, given their battles with the DoD maybe they’ll go with Epic just to be different. But if I were a Cerner marketer I’d like my odds.

Vendors Bring Heart And Lung Sounds To EHR

Posted on June 3, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

In what they say is a first, a group of technology vendors has teamed up to add heart and lung sounds to an EMR. The current effort extends only to the drchrono EHR, but if this rollout works, it seems likely that other vendors will follow, as adding multimedia content to patient medical records is a very logical step.

Urgent care provider Direct Urgent Care, a Berkeley, CA-based urgent care provider with 30,000 patients, is rolling out the Eko Core Digital Stethoscope for use by physicians. The heart and lung sounds will be recorded by the digital stethoscope, then transmitted wirelessly to a phone- or tablet-based mobile app. The app, in turn, uploads the audio files to the drchrono HR.

Ordinarily, I’d see this as an early experiment in managing multimedia health data and leave it at that. But two things make it more interesting.

One is that the Eko Core sells for a relatively modest $299, which is not bad for an FDA-cleared device. (Eko also sells an attachment for $199 which digitizes and records sounds captured by traditional analog stethoscopes, as well as streaming those files to the Eko app.) The other is that the recorded sounds can be shared with remote specialists such as cardiologists and pulmonologists, which seems valuable on its face even if the data doesn’t get stored within an EMR.

Not only that, this rollout underscores a problem just been given too little attention. At present, what I’ve seen, few EMRs incorporated anything beyond text. Even radiology images, which have been digital for ages (and managed by sophisticated PACS platforms) typically aren’t accessible to the EMR interface. In fact, my understanding is that PACS data is another silo that needs to be broken down.

Meanwhile, medical practices and hospitals are increasingly generating data that doesn’t fit into the existing EMR template, from sources such as wearables, health apps and video consults. Neither EMR developers nor standards organizations seem to have kept up with the influx of emerging non-text data, so virtually none of it is being integrated into patient records yet.

In other words, not only is it interesting to note that an EMR vendor is incorporating audio into medical records, at a modest cost, it’s worth taking stock of what it can teach us about enriching digital patient records overall.

Eventually, after all, patients will be able to capture — with some degree of accuracy — multimedia content that includes not only audio, but also ultrasound recordings, EKG charts and more. Of course, these self-administered tests and will never replace a consult by a skilled clinician, but there certainly are situations in which this data will be relevant.

When you also bear in mind that the number of telemedicine consults being conducted is growing dramatically, and that these, too, offer insights that could become part of a patient’s chart, the need to go beyond text-based EMRs becomes even more evident.

So maybe the Eko/drchrono partnership will work out, and maybe it won’t. But what they’re doing matters nonetheless.

Joint Commission Now Allows Texting Of Orders

Posted on May 17, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

For a long time, it was common for clinicians to share private patient information with each other via standard text messages, despite the fact that the information was in the clear, and could theoretically be intercepted and read (which this along with other factors makes SMS texts a HIPAA violation in most cases). To my knowledge, there have been no major cases based on theft of clinically-oriented texts, but it certainly could’ve happened.

Over the past few years, however, a number of vendors have sprung up to provide HIPAA-compliant text messaging.  And apparently, these vendors have evolved approaches which satisfy the stringent demands of The Joint Commission. The hospital accreditation group had previously prohibited hospitals from sanctioning the texting of orders for patient care, treatment or services, but has now given it the go-ahead under certain circumstances.

This represents an about-face from 2011, when the group had deemed the texting of orders “not acceptable.” At the time, the Joint Commission said, technology available didn’t provide the safety and security necessary to adequately support the use of texted orders. But now that several HIPAA-compliant text-messaging apps are available, the game has changed, according to the accrediting body.

Prescribers may now text such orders to hospitals and other healthcare settings if they meet the Commissioin’s Medication Management Standard MM.04.01.01. In addition, the app prescribers use to text the orders must provide for a secure sign-on process, encrypted messaging, delivery and read receipts, date and time stamp, customized message retention time frames and a specified contact list for individuals authorized to receive and record orders.

I see this is a welcome development. After all, it’s better to guide and control key aspects of a process rather than letting it continue on underneath the surface. Also, the reality is that healthcare entities need to keep adapting to and building upon the way providers actually communicate. Failing to do so can only add layers to a system already fraught with inefficiencies.

That being said, treating provider-to-provider texts as official communications generates some technical issues that haven’t been addressed yet so far as I know.

Most particularly, if clinicians are going to be texting orders — as well as sharing PHI via text — with the full knowledge and consent of hospitals and other healthcare organizations — it’s time to look at what it takes manage that information more efficiently. When used this way, texts go from informal communication to extensions of the medical record, and organizations should address that reality.

At the very least, healthcare players need to develop policies for saving and managing texts, and more importantly, for mining the data found within these texts. And that brings up many questions. For example, should texts be stored as a searchable file? Should they be appended to the medical records of the patients referenced, and if so, how should that be accomplished technically? How should texted information be integrated into a healthcare organization’s data mining efforts?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but I’d argue that if texts are now vehicles for day-to-day clinical communication, we need to establish some best practices for text management. It just makes sense.

Time To Leverage EHR Data Analytics

Posted on May 5, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

For many healthcare organizations, implementing an EHR has been one of the largest IT projects they’ve ever undertaken. And during that implementation, most have decided to focus on meeting Meaningful Use requirements, while keeping their projects on time and on budget.

But it’s not good to stay in emergency mode forever. So at least for providers that have finished the bulk of their initial implementation, it may be time to pay attention to issues that were left behind in the rush to complete the EHR rollout.

According to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics practice, it’s time for healthcare organizations to focus on a new set of EHR data analytics approaches. PwC argues that there is significant opportunity to boost the value of EHR implementations by using advanced analytics for pre-live testing and post-live monitoring. Steps it suggests include the following:

  • Go beyond sample testing: While typical EHR implementation testing strategies look at the underlying systems build and all records, that may not be enough, as build efforts may remain incomplete. Also, end-user workflow specific testing may be occurring simultaneously. Consider using new data mining, visualization analytics tools to conduct more thorough tests and spot trends.
  • Conduct real-time surveillance: Use data analytics programs to review upstream and downstream EHR workflows to find gaps, inefficiencies and other issues. This allows providers to design analytic programs using existing technology architecture.
  • Find RCM inefficiencies: Rather than relying on static EHR revenue cycle reports, which make it hard to identify root causes of trends and concerns, conduct interactive assessment of RCM issues. By creating dashboards with drill-down capabilities, providers can increase collections by scoring patients invoices, prioritizing patient invoices with the highest scores and calculating the bottom-line impact of missing payments.
  • Build a continuously-monitored compliance program: Use a risk-based approach to data sampling and drill-down testing. Analytics tools can allow providers to review multiple data sources under one dashboard identify high-risk patterns in critical areas such as billing.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that while these goals seem worthy, only a small percentage of providers have the resources to create and manage such programs. Sure, vendors will probably tell you that they can pop a solution in place that will get all the work done, but that’s seldom the case in reality. Not only that, a surprising number of providers are still unhappy with their existing EHR, and are now living in replacing those systems despite the cost. So we’re hardly at the “stop and take a breath” stage in most cases.

That being said, it’s certainly time for providers to get out of whatever defensive crouch they’ve been in and get proactive. For example, it certainly would be great to leverage EHRs as tools for revenue cycle enhancement, rather than the absolute revenue drain they’ve been in the past. PwC’s suggestions certainly offer a useful look on where to go from here. That is, if providers’ efforts don’t get hijacked by MACRA.

Medical Device Security At A Crossroads

Posted on April 28, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As anyone reading this knows, connected medical devices are vulnerable to attacks from outside malware. Security researchers have been warning healthcare IT leaders for years that network-connected medical devices had poor security in place, ranging from image repository backups with no passwords to CT scanners with easily-changed configuration files, but far too many problems haven’t been addressed.

So why haven’t providers addressed the security problems? It may be because neither medical device manufacturers nor hospitals are set up to address these issues. “The reality is both sides — providers and manufacturers — do not understand how much the other side does not know,” said John Gomez, CEO of cybersecurity firm Sensato. “When I talk with manufacturers, they understand the need to do something, but they have never had to deal with cyber security before. It’s not a part of their DNA. And on the hospital side, they’re realizing that they’ve never had to lock these things down. In fact, medical devices have not even been part of the IT group and hospitals.

Gomez, who spoke with Healthcare IT News, runs one of two companies backing a new initiative dedicated to securing medical devices and health organizations. (The other coordinating company is healthcare security firm Divurgent.)

Together, the two have launched the Medical Device Cybersecurity Task Force, which brings together a grab bag of industry players including hospitals, hospital technologists, medical device manufacturers, cyber security researchers and IT leaders. “We continually get asked by clients with the best practices for securing medical devices,” Gomez told Healthcare IT News. “There is little guidance and a lot of misinformation.“

The task force includes 15 health systems and hospitals, including Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Beebe Healthcare and Intermountain, along with tech vendors Renovo Solutions, VMware Inc. and AirWatch.

I mention this initiative not because I think it’s huge news, but rather, as a reminder that the time to act on medical device vulnerabilities is more than nigh. There’s a reason why the Federal Trade Commission, and the HHS Office of Inspector General, along with the IEEE, have launched their own initiatives to help medical device manufacturers boost cybersecurity. I believe we’re at a crossroads; on one side lies renewed faith in medical devices, and on the other nothing less than patient privacy violations, harm and even death.

It’s good to hear that the Task Force plans to create a set of best practices for both healthcare providers and medical device makers which will help get their cybersecurity practices up to snuff. Another interesting effort they have underway in the creation of an app which will help healthcare providers evaluate medical devices, while feeding a database that members can access to studying the market.

But reading about their efforts also hammered home to me how much ground we have to cover in securing medical devices. Well-intentioned, even relatively effective, grassroots efforts are good, but they’re only a drop in the bucket. What we need is nothing less than a continuous knowledge feed between medical device makers, hospitals, clinics and clinicians.

And why not start by taking the obvious step of integrating the medical device and IT departments to some degree? That seems like a no-brainer. But unfortunately, the rest of the work to be done will take a lot of thought.

Are Ransomware Attacks A HIPAA Issue, Or Just Our Fault?

Posted on April 18, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

With ransomware attacks hitting hospitals in growing numbers, it’s growing more urgent for healthcare organizations to have a routine and effective response to such attacks. While over the short term, providers are focused mostly on survival, eventually they’ll have to consider big-picture implications — and one of the biggest is whether a ransomware intrusion can be called a “breach” under federal law.

As readers know, providers must report any sizable breach to the HHS Office for Civil Rights. So far, though, it seems that the feds haven’t issued any guidance as to how they see this issue. However, people in the know have been talking about this, and here’s what they have to say.

David Holtzman, a former OCR official who now serves as vice president of compliance strategies at security firm CynergisTek, told Health Data Management that as long as the data was never compromised, a provider may be in the clear. If an organization can show OCR proof that no data was accessed, it may be able to avoid having the incident classed as a breach.

And some legal experts agree. Attorney David Harlow, who focuses on healthcare issues, told Forbes: “We need to remember that HIPAA is narrowly drawn and data breaches defined as the unauthorized ‘access, acquisition, use or disclosure’ of PHI. [And] in many cases, ransomware “wraps” PHI rather than breaches it.”

But as I see it, ransomware attacks should give health IT security pros pause even if they don’t have to report a breach to the federal government. After all, as Holtzman notes, the HIPAA security rule requires that providers put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure the confidentiality, the integrity and availability of ePHI. And fairly or not, any form of malware intrusion that succeeds raises questions about providers’ security policies and approaches.

What’s more, ransomware attacks may point to underlying weaknesses in the organization’s overall systems architecture. “Why is the operating system allowing this application to access this data?” asked one reader in comments on a related EMR and HIPAA post. “There should be no possible way for a database that is only read/write for specified applications to be modified by a foreign encryption application,” the reader noted. “The database should refuse the instruction, the OS should deny access, and the security system should lock the encryption application out.”

To be fair, not all intrusions are someone’s “fault.” Ransomware creators are innovating rapidly, and are arguably equipped to find new vectors of infection more quickly than security experts can track them. In fact, easy-to-deploy ransomware as a service is emerging, making it comparatively simple for less-skilled criminals to use. And they have a substantial incentive to do so. According to one report, one particularly sophisticated ransomware strain has brought $325 million in profits to groups deploying it.

Besides, downloading actual data is so five years ago. If you’re attacking a provider, extorting payment through ransomware is much easier than attempting to resell stolen healthcare data. Why go to all that trouble when you can get your cash up front?

Still, the reality is that healthcare organizations must be particularly careful when it comes to protecting patient privacy, both for ethical and regulatory reasons. Perhaps ransomware will be the jolt that pushes lagging players to step up and invest in security, as it creates a unique form of havoc that could easily put patient care at risk. I certainly hope so.

Breach Affecting 2.2M Patients Highlights New Health Data Threats

Posted on April 4, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A Fort Myers, FL-based cancer care organization is paying a massive price for a health data breach that exposed personal information on 2.2 million patients late last year. This incident is also shedding light on the growing vulnerability of non-hospital healthcare data, as you’ll see below.

Recently, 21st Century Oncology was forced to warn patients that an “unauthorized third party” had broken into one of its databases. Officials said that they had no evidence that medical records were accessed, but conceded that breached information may have included patient names Social Security numbers, insurance information and diagnosis and treatment data.

Notably, the cancer care chain — which operates on hundred and 45 centers in 17 states — didn’t learn about the breach until the FBI informed the company that it had happened.

Since that time, 21st Century has been faced with a broad range of legal consequences. Three lawsuits related to the breach have been filed against the company. All are alleging that the breach exposed them to a great possibility of harm.  Patient indignation seems to have been stoked, in part, because they did not learn about the breach until five months after it happened, allegedly at the request of investigating FBI officials.

“While more than 2.2 million 21st Century Oncology victims have sought out and/or pay for medical care from the company, thieves have been hard at work, stealing and using their hard-to-change Social Security numbers and highly sensitive medical information,” said plaintiff Rona Polovoy in her lawsuit.

Polovoy’s suit also contends that the company should have been better prepared for such breaches, given that it suffered a similar security lapse between October 2011 and August 2012, when an employee used patient names Social Security numbers and dates of birth to file fraudulent tax refund claims. She claims that the current lapse demonstrates that the company did little to clean up its cybersecurity act.

Another plaintiff, John Dickman, says that the breach has filled his life with needless anxiety. In his legal filings he says that he “now must engage in stringent monitoring of, among other things, his financial accounts, tax filings, and health insurance claims.”

All of this may be grimly entertaining if you aren’t the one whose data was exposed, but there’s more to this case than meets the eye. According to a cybersecurity specialist quoted in Infosecurity Magazine, the 21st Century network intrusion highlights how exposed healthcare organizations outside the hospital world are to data breaches.

I can’t help but agree with TrapX Security executive vice president Carl Wright, who told the magazine that skilled nursing facilities, dialysis centers, imaging centers, diagnostic labs, surgical centers and cancer treatment facilities like 21st are all in network intruders’ crosshairs. Not only that, he notes that large extended healthcare networks such as accountable care organizations are vulnerable.

And that’s a really scary thought. While he doesn’t say so specifically, it’s logical to assume that the more unrelated partners you weld together across disparate networks, it multiplies the number of security-related points of failure. Isn’t it lovely how security threats emerge to meet every advance in healthcare?