Protecting Patient Data – A Healthy Obsession

As a Site Reliability Engineer for Modernizing Medicine’s Electronic Medical Assistant® (EMA™), I have the unique obsession of constantly thinking about how we protect patient data, not only for compliance purposes, but also, quite simply, because our clients and their patients expect their personal data to be protected and it’s the right thing to do. Any update or enhancement to EMA EMR or our systems triggers an analysis about how it will affect our ability to protect patient data.

Securing patient data generally falls within the following three categories:

1. Verifying the user has the rights to access the data he or she is requesting
2. Securing the data “at rest”
3. Securing the data “in transit”

Being deployed in the cloud poses some extra security challenges to ensure data is protected through its lifecycle.

EMA is built from the ground up with security in the forefront of our mind. Within EMA, there’s a security framework that ensures a user has rights to access requested data, and ALL requests to EMA pass through this framework. This protects patient data by restricting the user to only see the data he or she has rights to, and hiding all other data.  This security framework overrides any potential misconfiguration or issue within EMA itself, so even if somehow there’s a request for information that the user should not see, the request will be denied.

Securing data “at rest” means we encrypt all patient data when it’s not being accessed (i.e. on disk or other physical media). This encryption makes our data unreadable to any entity outside of our organization that would happen to gain access to our equipment. All data is protected by closely guarded “keys,” and without the proper key, the media is unreadable. For instance, a technician performing maintenance to our infrastructure would not be able to read our data even if he removed physical disks. All of our data is stored encrypted, as well as our files, our backups and the backups of our backups.  This is extremely important in the cloud as equipment is maintained by a third party.

Data “in transit” refers to information moving between servers. Technology exists to “eavesdrop” on a computer network, similar to listening in on a phone conversation.  One of the most noticeable tools that companies use to address this is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) – you will see a lock on your web browser if the site is using SSL. We use high-grade SSL encryption between your browser and our servers, which makes the conversation between you and us “private.” But what happens when data is transferred internally between our servers? That data is also encrypted. For instance, we replicate all data to servers locally, and also across the country to provide high availability to our users. All replication traffic is encrypted, even when we replicate across the county. We verify and test that our encryption is working, using tools to “eavesdrop” and verify that we cannot see any patient data while we are eavesdropping.

We recognize the importance of protecting patient data, and continually research to find new methodologies to maximize the strength of our security tools while adding the minimal amount of complexity to our systems and EMA. This is our obligation to our users and the expectation of patients.

If you want to learn more, please tune in to the live webinar “Modernizing Medicine, a SaaS solution running on Amazon AWS” hosted by Continuent on Thursday, September 19, 1:00pm EDT (10:00am PDT). I’ll be speaking with Edward Archibald, CTO, Continuent.

Aaron Stoklosa
Aaron Stoklosa

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