Is protected health information safe in the cloud?

Many healthcare providers face the decision on if they should store protected health information (PHI) in the cloud. There are benefits and concerns to storing PHI in the cloud, and the decision to do so should be analyzed.

PHI is any health-related or insurance payment information that is stored or managed by a healthcare provider that can identify a specific individual. Examples of PHI are patient names, addresses, Social Security numbers, X-ray images, lab results, insurance payment information and medical records. Even information about a patient’s planned future procedures is PHI. Government regulation of PHI is covered in the HIPPA Privacy Rule, and all healthcare providers in the United States must adhere to it or face fines.

PHI data is some of the most valuable data on the black market. Many hackers prefer PHI data over standard credit card data due to the amount that they can earn through health insurance fraud. With many banks having limits on account transfers or alerts for frequent transactions, bank account and credit data has become even less attractive.

Health insurance fraud is more difficult to trace by law enforcement than unauthorized credit card usage. This fraud can enable criminals to obtain access to prescription medications, get medical services or even purchase expensive medical equipment that can resale at a much higher price on the black market. Healthcare data is even being used a lot to file false tax returns. Most times, the cost on the black market for healthcare information is multiple times higher than credit card records.

Benefits of storing PHI in the cloud

Storing healthcare data in the cloud gives users the ability to access it across a variety of electronic devices while eliminating the costs and technical challenges associated with maintaining an infrastructure system on site.

Many health providers would prefer to move their infrastructure to the cloud so they can focus on what they perform best, which is provide healthcare services. Also, the capital cost of managing a data center can vary each year due to hardware refreshes. But hosting data in the cloud can provide more static cost each year, which makes the budget for managing it simpler and more predictable.

Cloud services allow data to be stored in multiple locations. This can be beneficial if there is a fire, natural disaster or power outage and can provide reassurance that critical business functions or operations will not be interrupted.

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