How to Determine if a Health Care Application is HIPAA Compliant?

October 26, 2021

Businesses across sectors have developed strategies to make business faster and more efficient as technology permeates every aspect of human life. The healthcare industry has grown at a breakneck pace as a result of technological improvements.

Going paperless has helped hospitals, doctors, clinics, and pharmacies, among others, speed up their operations. Payment systems, questionnaires, and many other administrative and clinical systems have all been moved to electronic devices, allowing doctors to see more patients and keep their information more conveniently available.

Notably, there was no universally accepted set of privacy and security standards to safeguard patient information before the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) implemented the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

With that, the many facets of HIPAA compliance will be examined in-depth in this article.

What is HIPAA Compliance?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a United States law to ensure all medical patient data safety, security, and protection. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforces HIPAA.

HIPAA mandates all professional companies, regardless of the kind, dealing with medical patients' sensitive information to adhere to HIPAA standards by implementing specific protections and measures to secure patient data. These standards include safeguards for the privacy, preservation, and electronic interchange of personal health data. Protected Health Information (PHI) is a type of information that, similar to Personally Identifiable Information (PII), is private health information about an individual patient.

How Does HIPAA Compliance Relate to Applications?

HIPAA rules govern the oral communication of sensitive patient information and the electronic storage and transmission of such information. The Privacy Rule and the Security Rule are the two most essential rules related to HIPAA regulations, while more rules are in the Act. It is critical to understand which Act regulations apply to software, computer systems, or applications and how they apply.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides national standards to secure individuals' medical records and other personal health information. It applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and health care providers who undertake certain electronic health care transactions.

In addition, the HIPAA Security Rule establishes national requirements for the protection of individuals' electronic personal health information created, received, used, or retained by a covered entity. The Security Rule mandates appropriate administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to preserve electronically protected health information wireless or wired network confidentiality, integrity, and security.

In this context, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has established Quick Start, automated reference deployments that follow AWS best practices and use AWS CloudFormation templates to launch important technologies on AWS. For an explanation of how you can use this Quick Start to support your compliance with specific criteria under the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, you can download the security controls matrix, a spreadsheet included with this Quick Start.

Determining if Your Health Care Application is HIPAA Compliant

Determining if a software system is HIPAA-compliant demands a detailed understanding of the application's security procedures and inner workings and testing the application to see whether any critical flaws exist that could lead to a data breach.

Pre-built software is easier to test and frequently easier to obtain documentation for in this regard. Furthermore, security researchers have often conducted security testing on pre-built software because several companies typically use such applications. In contrast, since only one company is likely to use custom software, it may not be well-documented or tested, necessitating professional security testing and auditing.

However, it is critical for businesses to remember that, regardless of whether the software system is HIPAA compliant by the vendor or a third party, it is ultimately their responsibility to guarantee that the software system is genuinely HIPAA compliant.

The Three HIPAA Safeguards that Pertain to Software

Administrative, physical, and technical safeguards are the three basic safeguards included in HIPAA's requirements.

Only parts of the three safeguards may apply depending on the medical organization functioning in the United States. The technical safeguards are primarily relevant to the management of patient data via software or computer systems.

Administrative Safeguards

Security management, staff training or auditing, and workforce training are all covered by administrative safeguards.

  • Security Management Process: A covered business must identify and analyze possible e-PHI risks before implementing security measures that decrease threats and vulnerabilities to an acceptable level.
  • Security Personnel: A covered entity must appoint a security professional to create and enforce its security policies and procedures.
  • Information Access Management: The Security Rule requires a covered entity to implement policies and procedures for authorizing access to e-PHI only when such access is appropriate. This appropriation gets based on the user's or recipient's role, which is consistent with the Privacy Rule standard of limiting uses and disclosures of PHI to the "minimum necessary."
  • Workforce Training and Management: Workforce members who work with e-PHI must be properly authorized and supervised by a covered company. A covered entity is required to train all employees on its security policies and procedures and implement and enforce appropriate sanctions against employees who violate those rules and procedures.
  • Evaluation: A covered company must assess how well its security policies and procedures fulfill the criteria of the Security Rule regularly.

Physical Safeguards

Access to computer and software systems, such as computer systems, facilities, network systems or servers, cloud servers, and so on, is protected by physical protections.

  • Facility Access and Control: Physical access to a covered entity's facilities must be restricted while authorized access is permitted.
  • Workstation and Device Security: A covered entity must establish policies and procedures that outline how You should use workstations and electronic media and who should have access to them.

Technical Safeguards

All methods of electronic access to all systems that hold or transfer patient data are subject to technical safeguards.

  • Access Control: A covered entity must implement technical policies and procedures that restrict access to electronically protected health information to only authorized individuals.
  • Audit Controls: A covered entity must use hardware, software, or procedural measures to track and examine access and other activity in information systems that store or use e-PHI.
  • Integrity Controls: A covered entity must have policies, procedures, and electronic safeguards to avoid the improper alteration or destruction of e-PHI.
  • Transmission Security: A covered entity must put technical security measures to protect e-PHI from sending over an electronic network from unauthorized access.

How to Determine if Your Application Complies with Technical Safeguards

To assure total compliance with HIPAA standards and guidelines, rigorous testing of all software systems in use is required.

This requirement includes database systems, communication systems, banking systems, email systems, network systems, and other software systems that handle patient data in any capacity. Furthermore, any medical organization that permits patients to access their records via a web interface should do a complete vulnerability scan of their network systems and web servers.

After gathering the necessary technical knowledge on the software's security methods and inner workings, it is critical to comprehend how data is stored and transmitted via software systems.

How is Your Data Stored?

Identifying how patient data is stored is the first step in ensuring that a medical organization's software systems comply with HIPAA regulations. This option can comprise internal storage systems such as database systems, servers, and external storage systems such as cloud storage. It must include a security evaluation.

Whether the medical organization uses online, cloud storage, or local storage systems, the way through which patient data gets saved should be safe. While cloud storage is a sound and secure means of data storage when handled right, internal storage systems can also secure this information when implemented correctly.

How is Your Data Transferred?

The greatest vulnerability connected with medical IT systems, according to statistics, has been with network systems and servers. As a result, when determining whether a medical organization's IT systems are safe, data transfer through a network — whether wireless or wired — is a critical issue.

Whether or not data is encrypted is one of the most critical considerations when transmitting information over a medical network. Cybercriminals can sniff plaintext data that is not encrypted, allowing them to collect and access private patient data without permission. Encrypting data, on the other hand, prevents attackers from deciphering private data in transit, even if it gets intercepted.

Seeking External Support in Determining HIPAA Compliance

A comprehensive security audit and HIPAA compliance check would be incomplete without a professional doing passive and active security checks on medical software systems, which helps to guarantee that the designs are free of key vulnerabilities. These tests help ensure that security controls get installed and implemented correctly.

Furthermore, HIPAA-specific security testing suites can be used to extensively verify medical IT systems, ensuring that they are all secure and HIPAA compliant. The jointly launched HIPAA Security Risk Assessment (SRA) Tool is an example of such a tool.


HIPAA is a comprehensive United States law that governs how medical patients' private information is handled, stored, and transmitted. The Act mandates that all healthcare institutions preserve their patient’s PHI with due diligence. As a result, precise HIPAA standards can apply to an organization's software architecture, and firms must abide by them.

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