How to Build HIPAA-Compliant Health Apps: Key Takeaways

HIPAA-compliant healthcare software

Viacheslav Timoschenko

Full-Stack Developer

In the rapidly evolving healthcare technology landscape, ensuring the security and privacy of patient health data is paramount. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets forth stringent guidelines for protecting protected health information (PHI) and regulating the use of electronic health records (EHR). For developers of healthcare applications, compliance with HIPAA is a fundamental responsibility to safeguard patient confidentiality and trust.

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The Basics of HIPAA Compliance

All healthcare providers, insurance companies, and enterprises dealing with sensitive patient data must strictly adhere to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Enacted in 1996 in the USA, HIPAA outlines the lawful use, management, and disclosure of protected health information (PHI). The violation of the Act may result in civil, monetary, or criminal penalties.

HIPAA compliance is mandatory for healthcare app development companies and is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Many healthcare organizations still use outdated software and legacy systems that are no longer updated and robust enough to guarantee data protection. Therefore, developers use encryption to ensure the security and integrity of electronic protected information (ePHI).

Below, you can find the list of the main terms used when speaking about HIPAA compliance.

  • Individually identifiable health information (IIHI)

    It’s a broader term than PHI, referring to information identifying individuals based on their demographics, health status, healthcare services received, and healthcare payments.

  • Protected health information (PHI)

    Individually identifiable health information of an individual that was created, transmitted, and maintained by covered entities or their business associates. 

    There are 18 HIPAA identifiers, including names, phone numbers, social security numbers, account numbers, web URLs and IP addresses, photos, biometrics, etc.

  • Covered entities

    Individuals, healthcare institutions, or organizations that transmit PHI electronically. These include health plans, healthcare providers, clinics, healthcare clearinghouses, and insurance companies.

  • Non-covered entity

    Individuals, businesses, or agencies that aren’t health care providers.

  • Business associates

    Individuals or organizations that deal with protected health information (use or disclose) on behalf of covered entities. These may be cloud service providers or healthcare app development companies processing patients’ data.

3 HIPAA Rules in App Development

1. The Privacy Rule

The Privacy Rule protects medical records and personal health information held by covered entities, setting strict limitations on using and disclosing the data without patient authorization. The rule safeguards health information in electronic, oral, or paper form, allowing individuals to access and correct their health records. In healthcare app development, this rule requires designing the features connected with data usage and disclosure with user consent in mind.

2. The Security Rule

The Security Rule applies to covered entities and business associates and secure storage, handling, and transmission of electronic patient health information (ePHI). The rule requires the implementation of administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to prevent data misuse and leaking and ensure its confidentiality and integrity. For healthcare mobile app developers, this rule means incorporating vulnerability assessment, access control, authorization, data encryption, and secure data transmission protocols.

3. The Breach Notification Rule

According to the Breach Notification Rule, covered entities and their business associates must notify patients, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), and the media about PHI breaches, regardless of their scope. Medical app developers must create mechanisms for prompt detecting and reporting of data breaches.

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6 Key Healthcare App Features that Need to be HIPAA Compliant

  • 01

    User Authentication and Access Controls

    Healthcare apps should incorporate robust user authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), to ensure that only authorized users can access patient information. Role-based access controls (RBAC) should be implemented to limit access based on user roles and responsibilities.

  • 02

    Secure Messaging and Communication

    HIPAA-compliant healthcare apps must provide secure messaging capabilities to facilitate communication between medical care providers and patients. This includes end-to-end encryption of messages and secure transmission protocols to protect sensitive information.

  • 03

    Electronic Health Records (EHR) Management

    Features related to electronic health records (EHR) management, such as viewing, updating, and sharing patient records, must comply with HIPAA regulations. Access to EHR data should be restricted to authorized personnel only, and audit trails should be maintained to track access and modifications.

  • 04

    Telehealth and Video Conferencing

    Telehealth and videoconferencing software enable remote consultations between patients and healthcare providers. These features must utilize secure communication channels and encryption to protect the confidentiality of patient health data transmitted during virtual visits.

  • 05

    Patient Consent and Authorization

    Features that involve collecting patient consent and authorization for data processing or sharing must comply with HIPAA requirements. This includes providing clear explanations of data usage and obtaining explicit consent from patients before accessing or sharing their information.

  • 06

    Data Backup and Disaster Recovery

    Healthcare apps should incorporate robust data backup and disaster recovery features to ensure the integrity and availability of patient data. Data backups should be encrypted and stored securely to prevent data loss or unauthorized access.

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A Checklist for Building a HIPAA-Compliant Healthcare App

  1. Understand HIPAA Regulations

    Before diving into development, familiarize yourself with the key provisions of HIPAA, especially the Privacy Rule and the Security Rule. The Privacy Rule outlines standards for protecting individually identifiable health information, while the Security Rule specifies the technical and physical safeguards required to secure electronic protected health information (ePHI). If needed, turn to a healthcare IT consulting services company.

  2. Implement Strong Access Controls

    Ensure that your healthcare application incorporates robust authentication and authorization mechanisms. Implement role-based access controls (RBAC) to restrict access to electronic protected health information (ePHI) based on user roles and responsibilities.

  3. Encrypt Data at Rest and in Transit

    Utilize strong encryption methods to protect ePHI both when it is stored (at rest) and when it is transmitted over networks (in transit). Use industry-standard protocols such as TLS (Transport Layer Security) for data transmission.

  4. Maintain Data Integrity

    Implement measures to ensure the integrity of ePHI. This involves mechanisms to detect and prevent unauthorized alterations to data, such as using hashing techniques and digital signatures.

  5. Perform Regular Security Risk Assessments

    Conduct ongoing risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities in your healthcare app and infrastructure. Address any identified risks promptly to mitigate security threats.

  6. Adopt Secure Software Development Practices

    Follow secure coding practices and conduct regular healthcare security testing throughout the development lifecycle. Implementing secure development methodologies can help prevent common vulnerabilities such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS).

  7. Establish Data Backup and Recovery Procedures

    Implement reliable data backup procedures to protect electronic health information against data loss or corruption. Test data recovery processes periodically to verify their effectiveness.

  8. Implement Audit Controls

    Enable audit logging to track access and modifications to ePHI within your healthcare application. Maintain audit trails to facilitate forensic analysis and compliance audits.

  9. Train Staff on HIPAA Compliance

    Educate all personnel involved in developing, deploying, and maintaining the healthcare app about HIPAA regulations and best practices. Ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities for safeguarding ePHI and penalties for non-compliance.

  10. Execute Business Associate Agreements (BAAs)

    If your medical app interacts with third-party service providers (business associates) that handle ePHI, execute Business Associate Agreements (BAAs) with them. A BAA establishes each party’s responsibilities regarding HIPAA compliance.

HIPAA-Compliant Healthcare App Development by Interexy

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FAQs

  1. What data is subject to HIPAA?

    Protected health information (PHI) subject to HIPAA includes any data identifying an individual’s health status, healthcare services received, or payment for healthcare. This encompasses medical records, lab results, appointment details, and health insurance information.

  2. Which healthcare apps need to comply with HIPAA regulations?

    Healthcare apps handling PHI, such as electronic health records (EHR) systems, telemedicine platforms, patient portals, and health-related data apps, must comply with HIPAA regulations to safeguard patient privacy and security.

  3. What are the consequences of non-compliance with HIPAA regulations?

    Non-compliance with HIPAA leads to significant financial penalties, legal actions, reputational damage, loss of business opportunities, and required corrective action plans. Adhering to HIPAA regulations is essential to avoid these consequences and maintain trust within the healthcare ecosystem.

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