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The final rule on meaningful use – an opportunity for healthcare process improvement and security program development

Earlier this week the CMS and ONC released the final Standards Rule for meaningful of electronic health records. This culminates a process in which the ONC received thousands of comments and struggled to reach a balance between specificity (presumed to make certification and implementation a simpler task) and generalization (which can enable more rapid innovation).

An analysis of the requirements can be daunting. For those who choose to go through the details of the requirements, key resources can be found at the Federal Register. Specifically, the Federal Register publication of the Meaningful Use regulation and the Federal Register publication of the Standards regulation. I have found the most useful summary in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal and Marilyn Tavenner. This reference includes a table with a summary overview of meaningful use objectives and their respective measures. This is a concise and useful description of the 15 core requirements for Eligible Professionals and the corresponding 14 core requirements for hospital organizations as well as the 10 discretionary requirements (of which 5 must be chosen). I have also put together a presentation regarding meaningful use that you may find helpful. Feel free to download it here.

From a security, privacy and compliance standpoint the implications of the final Standards Rule are quite significant. One of the core requirements sets a specific goal: implement systems to protect the security and privacy of patient data in the EHR. The corresponding measure calls for organizations to conduct a security risk analysis, implement security updates and correct identified security deficiencies.

A closer look at the security and privacy rules shows that the most prescriptive requirements involve transport layer security, message integrity and auditing/logging. Key highlights from the regulations are outlined below:

Encryption and decryption requirements for use of electronic health information

Usage guidelines – Any encryption algorithm identified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as an approved security function in Annex A of the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) Publication 140-2.

Record actions related to electronic health information

The date, time, patient identification, and user identification must be recorded when electronic health information is created, modified, accessed, or deleted; and an indication of which action(s) occurred and by whom must also be recorded.

Verification that electronic health information has not been altered in transit

Standard – A hashing algorithm with a security strength equal to or greater than SHA-1 (Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA-1) as specified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in FIPS PUB 180-3 (October, 2008)) must be used to verify that electronic health information has not been altered.

Record treatment, payment, and health care operations disclosures

The date, time, patient identification, user identification, and a description of the disclosure must be recorded for treatment, payment, and health care operations, as these terms are defined at 45 CFR 164.501.

Now, let’s look at what this will mean in the healthcare community with a focus primarily on security, privacy and compliance programs. By now, I think most vendors and providers in the healthcare industry segment realize that the transition to widespread adoption and meaningful use of electronic health records is an opportunity for a major overhaul and upgrade of their workflow processes and the IT systems that support those processes. Many people in the healthcare community that I have talked with view this as similar to the challenges faced in the 80’s and 90’s when businesses transitioned to ERP systems. The transition can be a source of major disruption and pain, but ultimately a source of competitive advantage and business agility.

The transition should also be viewed as an opportunity for major enhancements to security, privacy and compliance programs. Information security stakeholders at healthcare organizations need to look at the transition to meaningful use of electronic health records not simply as a set of requirements that call for risk analysis, encryption and auditing/logging, but an opportunity to modernize their information security programs, revitalize governance mechanisms and institute risk management as a core, ongoing process. Pragmatically, healthcare organizations must also realize that for the next 12 to 18 months EMR vendors will be focusing on certification as their number one priority. Certification is a necessity for meeting the requirements of the meaningful use rule and a business driver for the EMR vendor community. Realistically, this means that security will not be the priority that it should be. As a result, more of the burden of systems and application security will fall on the shoulders of deploying organizations.

In summary, the transition to meaningful use of electronic health records is a very ambitious program. The most successful organizations will look to set their own goals and invigorate their security, privacy and compliance programs.

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