5 key network aspects to focus on for HIPAA compliance

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, is a compliance standard that was implemented after all health-related information was digitized. The crux of the act is to ensure that all sensitive electronic protected health information (ePHI) has restricted, secure access.

HIPAA compliance for networks

Various aspects of your network determine your compliance with HIPAA standards.

1. Configuration changes in network devices

Network device configurations dictate how your network devices behave and communicate within your network. To accommodate the sudden spike in the load that healthcare institutions’ networks are witnessing during the COVID-19 pandemic, network admins must continuously make changes to configurations.

A faulty configuration change can make the network vulnerable, granting unauthorized users access to confidential information, which is a violation of HIPAA standards. As an example, if the passwords of network devices are not encrypted, any unauthorized user can read these passwords and gain access to databases storing confidential information. So, configuration changes must be reviewed both before and after they have been uploaded to devices to avoid such data breaches.

2. Firewall rule changes

HIPAA mandates that firewall rules be configured such that only authorized users’ devices can access confidential data like ePHI. As an example, an employee who works a desk job in a hospital might only require access to their email or web portals specific to the hospital, which does not contain confidential data. Firewall rules can be configured specifically for this employee to grant them access to only these websites while making all other websites inaccessible. This restriction will reduce the chance of the employee interacting with suspicious users or downloading malicious software.

In cases where certain employees are authorized to access ePHI, network admins can configure rules to enable these employees’ computers to reach servers containing such confidential information. Additionally, firewalls support identity-based authentication mechanisms where users will have to provide information known only to them to access ePHI, making confidential information even more secure.

HIPAA has relaxed some of its rules considering the ongoing pandemic. This has likely made several network admins change their firewall rules. But if the impact of such changes is not analysed before they are implemented, unauthorized users could enter the healthcare organization’s network and access confidential information.

3. Firewall logs

Firewall logs contain information like which users logged in, the files they accessed, and the changes made to databases. These logs must be monitored to analyse traffic behaviour and ensure the traffic is from authorized users. If logs are not analysed routinely, malicious users will get away completely unseen, free to access databases containing ePHI and commit crimes like altering health records for insurance fraud or even identity theft.

Healthcare organizations must incorporate mechanisms for analysing activity in databases that contain confidential data like ePHI. HIPAA also mandates that these logs be preserved for a minimum of six years, so network admins must ensure that the logs they have pulled are securely stored for auditing purposes.

4. VPN configurations

Instead of modifying firewall rules, network admins can configure VPNs for restricted access to confidential information. A VPN will ensure that all data transfers happen through encrypted tunnels so that no data breach occurs through devices connected to the network.

If an admin suspects a data breach at any point, they can immediately shut down the VPN to block access to all confidential information, containing the possible data breach.

5. Secure backup of ePHI

HIPAA standards require all ePHI to be backed up in case there is a network disaster. Admins can encrypt and store all ePHI data in off-site servers to ensure maximum security. In times of a network disaster, where the organization’s primary servers are rendered inaccessible, users can access these off-site backup servers and retrieve all essential data. A VPN can ensure that access to these servers is restricted.

Such disaster recovery plans are crucial for complying with HIPAA standards. Also, since healthcare organizations require high network availability now more than ever to fight this pandemic, backup servers are critical to ensure operational continuity.

In large hospital networks, it would be challenging for admins to monitor and audit all these components. But with the right tools, admins can easily analyse and audit traffic, firewall rules, logs, and network configuration changes to detect anomalies and deploy corrective measures.

ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager and ManageEngine Firewall Analyzer are tools that can help you stay compliant with HIPAA standards. You can schedule routine compliance checks and generate intuitive reports for both internal and external auditing purposes.

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