New HIPAA Guidelines: Reflecting on Google's compliance and how Steer can help

The recent guidance from the US Health and Human Services regarding online tracking has brought to light a critical issue: Google Analytics is not compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in its default configuration. This means, using Google Analytics on any part of your website may potentially expose Protected Health Information (PHI) and individuals.

Why Google is not HIPAA compliant

First, according to new regulations, Google Tracking is not acceptable for being enabled prior to user sign-in due to privacy concerns. This means that websites cannot use Google Analytics to track user behavior or collect data until the user has explicitly signed in or provided consent. This regulation aims to protect individuals' personal information and ensure that their privacy rights are respected.

Secondly, even if the tracking is primarily used for aggregating data, it still falls short of HIPAA compliance. While Google Analytics allows website owners to gather valuable insights and analyze user behavior, it does not meet the strict security and privacy standards required by HIPAA. The platform's underlying technology and data handling processes do not adhere to HIPAA standards, putting the confidentiality and integrity of protected health information (PHI) at risk.

Lastly, simply having a banner that allows users to opt-out of tracking or cookies doesn't make Google Analytics compliant with HIPAA regulations. While giving users the option to opt-out is a step towards respecting their privacy preferences, it doesn't address the fundamental issues with Google Analytics in relation to HIPAA compliance. The platform's data collection practices and data sharing with third parties still pose potential risks to the privacy and security of PHI.

The rationale behind this stance is clear. Let's consider an example: Suppose a pregnant woman searches for an obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN) in her vicinity and clicks on the first link, which leads to a local healthcare system's pregnancy services page. The Google Analytics tracking snippet collects the page's URL and the user's IP address. This combination of data constitutes protected health information, as it could potentially reveal that an individual woman is pregnant.

While Google Analytics aggregates this data for your analytics dashboard, Google still retains access to it. Moreover, it can provide you with the general location of the visitors to that specific page, which, in itself, can be considered too granular under HIPAA privacy rules.

Similar concerns can arise on sign-in or scheduling pages. Medical information about individuals can be inferred from the data tracked on these pages, which triggers the applicability of HIPAA rules if Google has access to any of the eighteen individual identifiers.

While you might be able to use Google tracking technology on certain pages like the homepage, general services page, or office location page, the essence of Google Analytics is its site-wide tracking. Consequently, if you are involved in building or managing a healthcare website, the use of Google Analytics' tracking technology could potentially jeopardize your compliance with HIPAA regulations.

In light of these considerations, it is crucial for healthcare providers and organizations handling PHI to be aware of the limitations of Google Analytics and other tracking tools that do not have a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) in place.

Adopting alternative HIPAA-compliant platforms or developing in-house tracking solutions, like the one developed by Steer Health, can help ensure the protection of patient data and compliance with HIPAA regulations. By prioritizing data privacy, granular control, robust security measures, employee training, and continuous monitoring and auditing, healthcare providers can establish themselves as reliable and compliant solutions in the healthcare industry.

Steer Health: HIPAA compliance 101

Here's how Steer Health demonstrates its compliance with HIPAA regulations in comparison to traditional tracking methods:

Internal HIPAA-Compliant Tracking Script

Steer Health has developed an in-house tracking script specifically tailored to meet the stringent requirements of HIPAA. This proprietary solution offers several advantages, including:

Data Privacy: The in-house script ensures robust data privacy by aligning with HIPAA standards. This means that patient information is handled in a manner that strictly adheres to the law.

Granular Control: Steer Health maintains granular control over data collection and storage. This level of control allows for precise management of sensitive patient information, reducing the risk of data exposure.

Exclusion of Third-Party Tracking Tools

Steer Health places a strong emphasis on avoiding reliance on external tracking tools. This approach comes with notable benefits, such as:

Risk Mitigation: By not relying on third-party providers for tracking, Steer Health reduces the potential risks associated with data breaches. This level of self-reliance helps safeguard patient information.

Full Control: Steer Health maintains full control over the processes of handling patient information. This control ensures that data is managed securely and in compliance with HIPAA regulations.

Robust Security Measures

Steer Health has implemented comprehensive security measures to protect patient data, including:

Encryption Protocols: Data transmission and storage are secured through encryption protocols. This ensures that patient information remains confidential and inaccessible to unauthorized parties.

Multi-Factor Authentication: Steer Health enhances access control by implementing multi-factor authentication. This added layer of security prevents unauthorized entry and enhances overall data protection.

Employee Training and Compliance

Steer Health places a strong emphasis on creating a culture of awareness and responsibility regarding patient data protection among its employees. This proactive approach ensures that all staff members are well-informed and compliant with HIPAA regulations.

Continuous Monitoring and Auditing

Steer Health takes a proactive approach to maintaining data security in a dynamic environment. This involves:

Regular Audits: Steer Health conducts regular audits to assess ongoing HIPAA compliance. These audits help identify and rectify any potential issues promptly.

In summary, Steer Health's approach to HIPAA compliance involves the development of an internal tracking script, exclusion of third-party tracking tools, robust security measures, employee training, and a continuous monitoring and auditing process. These measures collectively ensure that patient data is handled securely and in accordance with HIPAA regulations, differentiating Steer Health as a reliable and compliant solution.

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