Can Providers Cope With EMR Security Challenges?

Posted on June 15, 2011 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.

Boy, back in the good old days, protecting patient data was comparatively easy. All you had to do was make sure that nobody got their hands on a patient’s paper chart who shouldn’t be looking at it.

After all, simple stuff like locking file rooms and making sure charts never get left in a public place are pretty easy to understand. Sure, paper records get stolen or rifled through now and then — no system is perfect — but putting processes in place to prevent unauthorized chart access isn’t that complicated.

On the other hand, introducing electronic medical records  — plus e-prescribing, digital sharing of lab results and more — is a completely different kettle of fish.

For one thing, providers must control access to medical information stored in their EMR in a far more sophisticated way than they had with paper charts.  For example, while role-based access to data may not sound too threatening to your average IT boss, it’s not exactly intuitive if you’re not a geek. Figuring out just who should get access to what gets a lot more complicated than when you used to just have to pull and route a chart.

Another issue: few clinicians know much about data security, and it’s not likely that they’re going to suddenly get wildly excited about encryption or VPNs.  Sure, you can warn them that it comes down to whether some random stranger (or even a staff member) will steal their patients’ Social Security numbers or broadcast medical secrets. But it’s just about impossible to explain security issues without wandering into scary jargon that will alienate the heck out of many doctors.

Of course, healthcare organizations can make sure their clinicians are trained to understand the importance of  securing their EMR. And they can even explain why specific types of security measures will limit their HIPAA exposure, the best pitch you can make to non-techies.

Still, the bottom line is that moving from paper to EMRs isn’t just a change-management exercise. It forces clinicians to think about how they use, distribute and share data on a profound level. I hope it does, anyway…cause if providers aren’t ready to think about these issues, things aren’t going to be pretty.