How to Secure Patient Data and Conduct Third-Party Risk Assessment

Keeping patient data secure in 2023 can be a daunting task for hospitals: As they have come to rely on various tools and platforms to manage patient information, make diagnoses, or engage in marketing, patient data is being widely spread across multiple channels and third-parties.

Data management responsibilities don't end when it's handled externally. The truth is: Maintaining privacy and security in healthcare goes beyond the activities of the healthcare provider itself; responsibility extends to any ancillary businesses a healthcare business works with, including all third-party services and apps they utilize.

Hence, failure to protect patient data because it is stored with third parties not only risks a HIPAA violation but affects and undermines patients' trust in their healthcare providers.

When it comes to selecting and evaluating partners and vendors in the healthcare industry (referred to as business associates and governed by HIPAA language), robust healthcare data protection measures are crucial. So, how can healthcare organizations effectively assess both potential and existing business associates?

Let's break it down step by step.

Identify Who Holds PHI Data

To begin the evaluation process, create a comprehensive list of vendors who have access to your organization's protected health information (PHI), and therefore, fall under business associate contracts. This includes third-party service providers, contractors, consultants, and vendors responsible for handling PHI on your organization's behalf, including transmission, maintenance, and storage. For example, cloud services like Google Apps should be considered as potential business associates if they manage, store, or process any type of PHI. Compliance regulations also extend to subcontractors involved in PHI data storing or maintenance.

Review Contracts and Agreements

Thoroughly review the agreements signed with each business associate to ensure they outline their responsibilities, safeguards, and compliance requirements. Essential provisions should include the implementation of appropriate security measures and compliance with privacy and security regulations such as HIPAA.

You need to obtain "satisfactory assurances" from all vendors, partners, and subcontractors, guaranteeing adequate protection of PHI. Remember, liability follows PHI wherever it goes.

However, contract review alone is not sufficient to ensure consistent compliance. To test if current systems are up to date with new rules and regulations, assess the actual security infrastructure and examine their management of security threats as follows.

Conduct Risk Assessments

Compliance regulations obligate organizations to constantly audit their IT infrastructures and security processes. This also means you can request business associates to provide their most recent risk assessments or even perform your own assessments for high-risk partners.

The assessment should identify potential vulnerabilities, threats, and risks associated with handling PHI. Evaluate the mitigation measures they have implemented, such as encryption, access controls, security audits, and employee training programs. Make sure their risk assessment reports touch upon technical, human, and administrative aspects of their security practices.

Evaluate Security Policies and Procedures

Ask business associates to share their security policies and procedures, including incident response plans, data breach notification procedures, and access controls. Look for evidence of technical safeguards like firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption mechanisms. Assess their physical security controls, such as restricted access to data centers and secure hardware disposal. 

Organizations must outline which subcontractors they use and which applications and services they use themselves to store, maintain or process your healthcare organization's data. Understanding where data leaves secure premises is key to verifying whether patient data is at ongoing risk.

Review these documents and check the measures against industry best practices and regulatory requirements like HIPAA. 

Review Incident Response and Breach Notification

Take a close look at the incident response plans and data breach notification procedures of your business associates. You want to make sure they have well-documented processes in place to quickly respond to security incidents and minimize any potential harm. Assess their ability to identify, contain, investigate, and resolve security breaches effectively. It's crucial to verify that they have clear procedures for notifying your organization and the individuals affected in case of a breach, as mandated by regulations. This ensures that any security incidents are handled promptly and with the utmost care.


Securing patient data is a paramount responsibility for healthcare organizations. By carefully evaluating the security and compliance posture of tech providers and vendors, you can protect patient information and ensure regulatory compliance.

Remember to identify who holds your data, review contracts and agreements, conduct risk assessments, evaluate security policies and procedures, and assess adherence to industry best practices. By consistently following these steps, you can strengthen patient data protection and uphold the trust of those you serve.

Secure Patient Data With Steer Secure Analytics

Steer Health is a patient engagement platform that does not use or process data outside the platform itself, significantly reducing security threats or data misuse. In addition, our advanced security system, Steer Secure Analytics, captures user behavior - click streams, navigation patterns, keywords, and form data to ensure that neither staff nor patients inadvertently share sensitive data. When sensitive data is compromised, the system creates automated security measures and notifications, empowering healthcare organizations with proactive safeguards against potential breaches.

Want to learn more about how Steer can help you manage patient data securely and effectively? Let's have a call!

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