How to Respond to a Third-Party Data Breach

Data breaches have become an unfortunate reality in today's digital age, and the healthcare industry is not immune to this threat. Quite the contrary, the healthcare sector suffered about 337 breaches in the first half of 2022 alone, according to Fortified Health Security.

Hospitals, as custodians of sensitive patient data, must remain vigilant and proactive in safeguarding patient information. However, even with robust security measures in place, breaches can still occur, especially when utilizing third-party services. In fact, data breaches through third-party associates such as technology vendors, digital services, or apps have risen significantly as health systems acquire more and more fragmented tools for various purposes like patient care, diagnoses, and marketing.

In a scenario of a breach, it is crucial for hospitals to have a well-defined plan of action to mitigate the risks and protect patient confidentiality. This blog will outline the steps that a hospital should take if patient data gets unwillingly shared via a third-party.

1. Respond Immediately

As soon as a breach is detected or suspected, swift action is paramount. The hospital should establish an incident response team consisting of key stakeholders from IT, legal, compliance, and public relations departments. This team must coordinate efforts and ensure a consistent and efficient response.

2. Investigate and Assess the Breach

The hospital should conduct a thorough investigation to determine the extent and nature of the breach. Engaging specialized cybersecurity experts can help identify vulnerabilities, assess the impact on patient data, and provide recommendations for containment.

3. Notify Relevant Parties

Promptly notifying affected patients and relevant regulatory authorities is a crucial step in the breach response process. The hospital should adhere to local regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), when determining the timeline and method of notifying patients. Transparency is key to maintaining trust and giving patients the opportunity to take necessary precautions.

4. Collaborate with the Third-Party

The hospital must establish open lines of communication with the third-party associate involved in the breach. Cooperation is vital to understanding how the breach occurred and implementing appropriate measures to prevent future incidents. Together, the hospital and the third party should investigate the breach's root cause, address any security gaps, and enhance data protection protocols.

5. Enhance Security Measures:

Following a breach, the hospital should reevaluate its security infrastructure and policies as well as those of all third-party associates handling PHI data. Collaborate with IT experts to bolster the security framework, including encryption techniques, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and access controls. Regular audits and vulnerability assessments help identify weaknesses and implement necessary improvements. 

6. Provide Support to Affected Patients

Recognizing the potential emotional and financial impact on affected patients is crucial. The hospital should provide support and resources to assist patients in dealing with the breach, such as identity theft protection services. Clear and empathetic communication is key to address patient concerns and provide guidance on safeguarding personal information.

7. Review Contracts and Assess Legal Implications

The hospital should thoroughly review contracts and agreements with the third-party associate involved in the breach. Legal experts must assess the potential liability and determine if any contractual obligations were violated. Lastly, communicating what remedies and measures will help the hospital to prevent future breaches play a big role in rebuilding patient trust.

Prevention and risk mitigation is key

A data breach via a third-party associate can have severe consequences for a hospital, not only in terms of compromised patient information. It will also lead to the erosion of patient trust and potentially have severe legal ramifications.

To prevent breaches in the future, hospitals must work with third-party vendors and partners to ensure data security and ongoing security audits. That means paying close attention to security when contracting with new technologies or partners. 

Steer Health does not store patient data outside its own system, making it much easier to ensure data security. Designed by IT experts and medical professionals alike with patients in mind, we perform quality control and ongoing HIPAA compliance assessments within our organization.

Curious to learn more about Steer Health? Let's talk!

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