Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Top 5 meta-findings from 12 years of security risk assessments in healthcare

My background: I have performed over 150 security risk assessments over the last 12 years, for organizations large and small, and for scopes as broad as an entire enterprise to as narrow as a single application, system, or vendor. Some of these assessments occurred within a day, some took months.

I’m writing this post in the hopes that:
* it can serve as a useful starting point for dialog within your organization about these issues
* enough people will read this that the prevalence of these findings will decrease over time
* my work performing risk assessment becomes more interesting and challenging over time
* I can remove all these meta-findings from my list 15 years from now

Risk assessments can contain all manner of findings, from the high-level policy issues to detailed technical issues. Corrections of the meta-findings that follow would significantly improve the effective management of all information security risks:

1. The "risk assessments” performed to date are actually compliance or control assessments. The organization (1) hasn’t complied with the HIPAA Security Rule and Meaningful Use requirements to perform risk assessment, and (2) has skipped the step that forms the fundamental basis for planning, thereby missing opportunities to efficiently use the organization's resources to appropriately and effectively protect patient and/or member data.

2. About 1/3 of the activities that are either universally important to effective security programs or needed to address the organization’s unique environment were overlooked because the consideration started and ended with an interpretation of the HIPAA Security Rule. The consideration only included the more directly worded CFR § 164.308 though 164.312. Specifically, the HIPAA Security Rule was misconstrued and misinterpreted because the entire preamble and CFR § 164.306 (a)(1) through (3) was skipped in the rush to quickly “be compliant.” 1

3. IT, Information Security, Facilities, Materials/Procurement, HR, Audit, and Compliance have distinct perspectives about information security, and these perspectives have not been harmonized, formalized, and agreed to. The organization as a whole lacks a uniform and coordinated approach and is missing a well-considered set of roles and responsibilities.

4. A large portion of the technical issues that the organization is experiencing is a result of processes or architectures that either do not exist or are poorly designed or implemented or are supported by functions that are understaffed. Technical tools intended to support security are under-utilized or improperly utilized. Much time is spent chasing specific resulting technical issues. The focus should be on identifying and correcting the organizational systems, business processes, personal incentives and (mis-aligned) accountabilities that create and perpetuate the technical issues.

5. Employed physicians, nurses and staff are not supporting security activities and policies because no one has explained in the language of their professions how their personal and individual missions can be put in jeopardy. Leaders, physicians with privileges, and sponsoring organizations have decision-making influence on business goals and risks. In the process, the information security risks are under-factored because they are explained in technical terms rather than in business terms.

In future posts, I will tackle some of these issues and provide recommendations for addressing them in your organization.

1 For those not familiar, CFR § 164.306 establishes "risks to ePHI" (not compliance) as the basis for all decision making related to security under the HIPAA Security Rule.