Locking Down Clinician Wi-Fi Use

Posted on November 1, 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.

Now that Wi-Fi-based Internet connections are available in most public spaces where clinician might spend time, they have many additional opportunities to address emerging care issues on the road, be they with their family in a mall or a grabbing a burger at McDonald’s.

However, notes one author, there are many situations in which clinicians who share private patient data via Wi-Fi may be violating HIPAA rules, though they may not be aware of the risks they are taking. Not only can a doctor or nurse end up exposing private health information to the public, they can open a window to their EMR, which can violate countless additional patients’ privacy. Like traditional texting, standard Wi-Fi offers hackers an unencrypted data stream, and that puts their connected mobile device at risk if they’re not careful to take other precautions like a VPN.

According to Paul Cerrato, who writes on cybersecurity for iMedicalApps, Wi-Fi networks are by their design open. If the physician can connect to the network, hostile actors could connect to the network and in turn their device, which would allow them to open files, view the files and even download information to their own device.

It’s not surprising that physicians are tempted to use open public networks to do clinical work. After all, it’s convenient for them to dash off an email message regarding, say, a patient medication issue while having a quick lunch at a coffee shop. Doing so is easy and feels natural, but if the email is unsecured, that physician risks exposing his practice to a large HIPAA-related fine, as well as having its network invaded by intruders. Not only that, any HIPAA problem that arises can blacken the reputation of a practice or hospital.

What’s more, if clinicians use an unsecured public wireless networks, their device could also acquire a malware infection which could cause harm to both the clinician and those who communicate with their device.

Ideally, it’s probably best that physicians never use public Wi-Fi networks, given their security vulnerabilities. But if using Wi-Fi makes sense, one solution proposed by Cerrato is for physicians is to access their organization’s EMR via a Citrix app which creates a secure tunnel for information sharing.

As Cerrato points out, however, smaller practices with scant IT resources may not be able to afford deploying a secure Citrix solution. In that case, HHS recommends that such practices use a VPN to encrypt sensitive information being sent or received across the Wi-Fi network.

But establishing a VPN isn’t the whole story. In addition, clinicians will want to have the data on their mobile devices encrypted, to make sure it’s not readable if their device does get hacked. This is particularly important given that some data on their mobile devices comes from mobile apps whose security may not have been vetted adequately.

Ideally, managing security for clinician devices will be integrated with a larger mobile device management strategy that also addresses BYOD, identity and access management issues. But for smaller organizations (notably small medical groups with no full-time IT manager on staff) beginning by making sure that the exchange of patient information by clinicians on Wi-Fi networks is secured is a good start.