NovaBACKUP Security Blog

Demystifying HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices and Dentists


As a healthcare professional, you understand the critical role that data plays in your practice. From patient records and Protected Health Information (PHI) to appointment schedules, your data is the lifeblood of your business. And if something happens to that data - a file is lost, or even the entire system, including all patient information, is encrypted or otherwise destroyed - the legal and financial ramifications are huge. Not to mention the patients you may be unable to help while you're trying to get your practice back up and running.

More than 60% of cybersecurity incidents adversely impact patient care. And we're not just talking about leaked patient information; we're talking about postponed surgeries and other critical procedures, and even simple first aid that can't be provided because patients have to be transferred to other facilities.

Introducing HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which addresses the protection and backup of PHI and is designed to provide guidance to doctors, dentists, and other healthcare professionals to help with situations like the above (among many other things).

Sounds like a good idea. But what does that even mean?

The problem is that many healthcare professionals struggle with interpreting these guidelines, resulting in IT environments that are not security-conscious. The German Federal Office for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, BSI), for example, conducted a study of medical practices and found that none of them had adequate IT security measures in place, meaning that they all had problems protecting patient data and their medical practices in accordance with local regulations, for example, practices:

  • Left PCs powered on and with a logged-in user, even when not in use.
  • Used external storage devices to store patient information.
  • Didn't use an anti-virus solution or didn't keep it up to date.
  • Ran backups but didn't test them and/ or didn't move them offsite.
  • And many other issues.

Germany's regulations are similar to HIPAA, so it's no surprise that medical professionals worldwide are struggling, either because of the ambiguity of the language or simply because doctors and nurses are not IT experts (nor should they be).

55% of healthcare professionals say the regulations are difficult or impossible to understand.

HIPAA Requirements for Data Backup in Healthcare

Let's demystify HIPAA regulations when it comes to data backup and recovery. We all (hopefully) know that data protection is essential for medical practices, dentists, and other healthcare professionals. It is not enough to simply back up your data. You need to do it in a way that ensures that in the worst-case scenario - data loss due to ransomware, hard drive failure, natural disaster, and more - you can get your data back in a short amount of time, reducing the disruption to your practice.

For example, if you simply copy all your files to a directly attached USB drive once a week, you won't be able to get to your backup if your PC and that USB drive are encrypted by ransomware or the hard drive is otherwise lost or destroyed.

That's where the specifics of HIPAA come in, setting the standards for protecting sensitive patient information and ensuring minimal downtime after a data loss, regardless of how the data was lost. According to HIPAA regulations, healthcare organizations must have a data protection plan in place that includes regular backups, secure storage, and the ability to recover data in the event of a disaster.

Here's a look at how that translates into a HIPAA-compliant backup solution and what it should do for medical practices, dentists, and other healthcare professionals. At a high level, here are some of the key features to consider:

  • Encryption: To protect sensitive data, especially Protected Health Information (PHI) and patient data in general, a HIPAA-compliant backup solution should use encryption in transit to the backup repository and at rest on the backup media. This ensures that even if your data is compromised, it remains unreadable to unauthorized individuals.
  • Regular backups: Your backup solution should automatically and regularly back up your data to ensure that you always have a current copy. In addition, it should ensure that you always have multiple copies of your data in multiple versions of the files you back up. That way, you can recover an older version of your data if the latest version has already been compromised.
  • Offsite storage: Any backup strategy must include multiple backups to different storage devices. Most of these will be local or nearby. But at least one of the copies should be stored offsite for an extra layer of protection. In the event of a physical disaster, such as a fire or flood, your data will still be safe. In addition, the offsite backup should be separate from your production environment to ensure that ransomware can't get to it either.
  • Data restore and disaster recovery: Your backup solution should have a reliable and simple recovery process that allows you to restore your data and entire systems quickly and easily. Being able to get your business back up and running, or even just getting an important file back quickly, can make all the difference.

There is a bit more to it, so take a look at our blog post "Backup Solutions for Healthcare: What to Look for" for more details.

Best Practices for Implementing and Monitoring HIPAA-Compliant Backup

Finding a backup solution that is HIPAA-compliant, easy to use, and scalable is only part of the story. Properly implementing and monitoring a HIPAA-compliant backup solution is even more critical to maintaining the security and integrity of your data. Some of the items and best practices to consider are:

  • Regularly test your backups: This ensures that everything is working properly and that you can successfully recover your data. More importantly, it ensures that you know how to recover your data, so you don't waste time figuring out how to use the software and lose valuable time and revenue.
  • Regularly review and update your backup procedures: Systems and files change, new hardware is added, new software is installed. Whatever the reason, an IT system grows and adapts with daily use. That's why your backup process needs to be reviewed regularly to ensure that all important files and systems are included in your backup jobs.
  • Monitor your backups: This can be done through a centralized management tool or by receiving alerts and notifications via email. Any potential issues or vulnerabilities can be easily communicated, helping you keep your backups complete.
  • Stay up to date on any security updates or patches: Make sure your backup software (and any other software for that matter) is up to date and using the latest update. This will ensure that the latest features are always enabled and that the latest security updates and patches are in place to ensure that potential vulnerabilities can't be exploited (which is one of the top five reasons ransomware can get into your system in the first place).
  • Proper training and communication: Train your staff on the importance of data protection and HIPAA compliance. Make sure they understand their role in keeping patient information secure and communicate updates regularly.

To review all the things you might want to consider, download our cybersecurity checklist.

If you're working with a managed service provider or backup solution vendor, take advantage of their expertise so you don't have to figure it all out yourself. After all, your focus should be on the patient, not your IT environment or backup solution. And if you’re not working with a managed service provider to handle your IT environment yet, we’re happy to refer you to one of our partners.

Not sure where to start? Contact us and we can walk you through it.

HIPAA-compliant backup & recovery for medical practices