eDiscovery and Audits: The Solution to Unauthorized Access
Electronic medical records (EMRs) contain sensitive personal information that is strongly protected in many jurisdictions. EMRs are protected under the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA) in Ontario by limiting authorized access to professionals who are currently providing healthcare services to the patient or are otherwise given consent to access the patient’s records. Despite PHIPA’s definition of and limits to authorized access, many of Ontario’s healthcare organizations (such as hospitals and clinics) operate open-access EMR database systems, meaning all healthcare staff have access to all records. Despite the responsibilities of healthcare organizations to protect patients’ information from unauthorized access and distribution, the risk of unprofessional conduct is not well-mitigated.
Unauthorized access to EMRs, colloquially termed snooping, constitutes the access and/or disclosure of private medical records without consent from the patient. Not all snooping is committed with malicious intent, and several cases in recent years have admitted curiosity or genuine concern as the reason behind the unauthorized access.
Regardless of the intention behind the act, snooping can have severe consequences for both the healthcare professional and the patient, even if the security breach is small in scale.
An offending healthcare professional could face loss of employment, relinquishment of their medical license, a civil lawsuit, and a maximum fine of $50,000 for violating PHIPA regulations. As for the patient, cases with the most severe consequences are usually smaller, isolated incidents involving social media and the malicious dispersion of their private medical records. A 2014 case in Indiana offers such an example, when a young woman’s positive STD test results were posted to Facebook by a former high school peer who was working as a nurse at the young woman’s local hospital – it is needless to say the reputational and emotional damage was irreversible.
While these cases are extremely serious, they are still relatively rare amongst healthcare-related lawsuits such as malpractice cases. However, the gradual increase in EMR privacy-related lawsuits and the understanding that electronic records can be manipulated have created a demand for reliable software tools that will efficiently identify, collect, and make available for attorneys accurate EMR data. This includes metadata such as the identification of healthcare providers who accessed the records and correlated timestamps, both of which are very important for the litigation. The practice of using these tools to find and freeze relevant data (meaning the data cannot be modified or deleted) is called eDiscovery.
Essentially, eDiscovery produces an “audit trail” from EMRs that is more accurate and reliable than simply accepting whatever records the healthcare provider’s attorney produces, as done in the past.
Using technology to sort and extract relevant data provides attorneys and healthcare organizations the advantage of being able to sift through more data faster. This is extremely useful given that the average Ontario hospital will generate approximately one million EMR access logs per week, or approximately 52 million in a given year.
However, challenges remain with assessing access logs and determining the purpose and validity of each. Some healthcare organizations use random audits to examine EMRs that have been accessed two or three times (or more) in a week; this method works similarly to a spot check by identifying anomalies and catching offenders off-guard. Another approach some organizations use is running regular conditions-based audit – basically, if a given patient’s EMR access logs meet pre-determined criteria that the healthcare organization has set, the access logs are flagged for further examination. While this approach may seem more methodical and likely to identify questionable activity, it also tends to generate many false alarms. Both random audits and regular condition-based searches make good use of available data analytics technology, however they both also require a level of human judgement and oversight that is not easily replaced by software.
So, what can be done to reduce, prevent, and prosecute unauthorized access to EMRs? Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has identified several methods of minimizing the risk of snooping, including the development of a comprehensive training program on privacy responsibilities for healthcare providers, and mandatory confidentiality agreements that are required prior to healthcare providers gaining access to medical record databases. These are feasible options, but they are only as strong as each healthcare organization’s resolve to implement them. Implementing advanced analytic technology could offer a positive way forward in better understanding this behaviour and improving prosecution against offenders.
As software developers create new methods of working with big data and continue to push analytic software and artificial intelligence to the next level, new solutions to complex issues like EMR privacy violations will emerge. The need for human judgement and oversight that is still required when using the aforementioned healthcare approaches to auditing can actually be reduced if not eliminated as long as the new audit solution has sophisticated data mining algorithms and well-integrated process triggers. KI Design’s Audit Solutions, powered by Maize have superior data mining and filtering abilities that can not only identify suspicious behaviour but also connect employee data access with potential clinical or operational reasons for accessing the data. If a particular access record is flagged as particularly suspicious, the audit software will trigger the risk assessment and incident response processes and provide relevant information to the healthcare organization’s privacy officer for manual review.
It is unnecessary for healthcare organizations and legal attorneys to remain dependent on manually sifting through EMRs and their access logs. Audit technology is more advanced and reliable than ever, and will likely play an important role in improving the eDiscovery process and lead to better outcomes to snooping lawsuits.