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Dentist And Patient

HIPAA Compliance For Dentists

Some of the most common questions asked by dental practices are “Are dentists covered by HIPAA?” or “Do HIPAA laws apply to dentists?” The answer to both questions is yes, HIPAA compliance for dental offices is mandatory. 

Like most medical practices, patient data and information needs to be protected and secured not only for confidentiality, but also to protect against sophisticated cyberattacks (such as ransomware). Even for smaller practices that have a limited digital footprint – privacy and security incidents remain a significant concern that needs to be taken seriously. 

Furthermore, HIPAA dental violations can be significant – involving anything from financial penalties to required corrective actions. Left unaddressed, your dental practice may have to shut its doors completely until brought back into compliance.

Luckily, HIPAA compliance issues can be avoided with sufficient HIPAA compliance training and by using the HIPAA compliance solution from PCIHIPAA called OfficeSafe, an all-in-one solution that’s trusted by thousands of practices nationwide.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what the HIPAA requirements for dental practices are, what you can do to avoid HIPAA dental violations through training, and how partnering with PCIHIPAA can streamline the entire process so you can focus on what you do best everyday. 

What are the HIPAA Training Requirements for Dentists and Dental Offices?

The ultimate objective of HIPAA requirements is to preserve the privacy and security of patient PHI (Protected Health Information). Dental practices are no exception, and must take steps to constantly stay compliant to safeguard patient information and reduce the potential risk of data breaches. 

These requirements must be implemented through training as part of the HIPAA Privacy Rule (45 CFR §164.530) and the HIPAA Security Rule (45 CFR §164.308)

If you’ve read through the minutia of those rules, you can see that it is no surprise that many dental practices that want to stay in compliance with HIPAA guidelines are confused as to what’s permitted and what’s not. The wording is obscure and non-specific, causing confusion among many dental practices. The reality of HIPAA compliance for dentists is that there is a grey area for complete adherence to HIPAA requirements for patient data. 

A Grey Area for HIPAA Compliance?

As mentioned, HIPAA has set broad guidelines for the vast variety of medical practices. These guidelines are meant as a catch-all due to the wide variance between dental practices (such as periodontists, general dentists, and cosmetic dentistry). HIPAA describes most dental practices as Covered Entities (CE) and the businesses related as Business Associates (BA). 

These rules for CEs and BAs are, at best, described as “flexible”. According to the vague terminology used in the HIPAA Privacy Rule, training of staff is required “as necessary and appropriate for members of the workforce to carry out their functions”. Similarly, the HIPAA Security Rule states CEs and BAs are also required to “implement a security awareness and training program for all members of the workforce”.

What does this mean exactly? Essentially, there is no detailed list of HIPAA training requirements provided for dentist practices and associated staff. Dental practices have to provide training but there are no strict guidelines to follow regarding:

  • How much training is required
  • When this training needs to be implemented 
  • Which staff members in the CEs and BAs need to be trained – and to what extent

This ambiguity can cause lots of confusion and uncertainty for dental practices – especially when financial risks are so high. After all, how do dentists know if they’re adhering to HIPAA compliance guidelines when there are no exact guidelines to follow?

Anticipating the Requirements of HIPAA Training

Despite clear guidelines, there are several aspects and best-practices that meet the guidelines to avoid HIPAA violations in dentistry while staying compliant. 

These include:

  • Appointing a HIPAA Security Officer
  • Regular Training Programs
  • Risk Assessments

Appointing a HIPAA Security Officer

One clearly-defined aspect of HIPAA compliance for dentists is the need to appoint a HIPAA Security Officer for CEs. This person is placed in charge of the creation and execution of policies and procedures that ensure the security of electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). 

The responsibilities of a HIPAA Security Officer include:

  • Monitoring HHS and state publications for advance notice of rule changes (via subscriptions to HIPAA-related news feeds or other up-to-date official communication channels).
  • Creating a training program that addresses how any changes in HIPAA compliance will directly affect staff – not only the changes themselves.
  • If new HIPAA rules or guidelines are issued, a risk assessment should be performed to determine how they will affect the organization’s operations – and if additional HIPAA training is required.
  • Working with administrative personnel & IT managers to receive advance notice of hardware/software upgrades and policy changes that may have an impact on compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule.

This, of course, puts the responsibility on organizations to choose an individual that is responsible for compliance over every aspect of a dental practice. By partnering with PCIHIPAA and implementing OfficeSafe, HIPAA Security Officers are automatically updated on relevant policies, changes to guidelines, and have access to a wealth of easy-to-implement training materials to stay compliant. 

Regular Training Programs

It’s important to understand that if a breach of PHI/ePHI was to occur, an investigation may find that no training had been provided. If this is the case, the CE or BA could expect a substantial fine from the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights

Overall, organizations that provide regular HIPAA training are much less likely to receive a HIPAA fine or experience a significant data breach. Therefore, we can understand that dental practices need to adhere to good-faith efforts with documentation. 

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This task can be demanding. Thankfully, PCIHIPAA simplifies this aspect of HIPAA training by offering not only comprehensive training programs (including HIPAA certification courses), but also thorough risk assessments

Risk Assessments 

The purpose of a risk assessment for dental practices is to determine and document where vulnerabilities lie in the technical, administrative, and physical aspects of your day-to-day operations. A risk assessment is designed to strengthen cybersecurity, create protocols that evolve along with updates to HIPAA, and respond to new emerging threats. 

Risk assessments take into account each individual who may have contact with PHI (or ePHI) and devise a training program for each individual’s function/role in the dental practice. Through careful study, these individuals can be brought up to speed about how to best handle PHI/ePHI, while also implementing best-practices that can cover threats such as social engineering. 

It’s best for a risk assessment to be regularly conducted through a 3rd party to give your organization a more objective window into the vulnerabilities that can threaten your practice. As an example, your in-house staff may miss critical material changes in policies or procedures that have the potential to increase or decrease the risk of HIPAA violations. And because the 3rd-party works with multiple dental practices, they are are able to spot trends that affect their network of clients and provide the proper guidance.

PCIHIPAA includes a custom-tailored solution for risk assessments. This service enables your dental practice to delegate the responsibility of HIPAA compliance and risk assessment onto a service that’s trusted by thousands of dental practices.

How Often is HIPAA Training Required?

Going back to the grey area, dentist HIPAA compliance also isn’t clearly defined in regards to how often staff needs to be trained and retrained during the employment. Both of HIPAA’s Privacy Rule and Security Rule offer suggestions without mandating specific timeframes. 

As a default, the best practice is to implement HIPAA compliance guidelines as soon as they are issued. For new hires, the Privacy Rule states that HIPAA training is required for “each new member of the workforce within a reasonable period of time after the person joins the Covered Entity’s workforce”

Similarly, HIPAA’s Security Rule states that training is required “periodically” for all individuals involved in dental practice (including CEs and BAs). A large majority of healthcare providers interpret “periodically” as on a yearly basis. With the pace of cybersecurity accelerating, a shorter period may constitute a negligent attitude towards training determined by an HHS investigation into a breach. 

And while dental practices should provide HIPAA refresher training annually, they also should consider providing shorter training sessions more frequently. The reasoning behind this is to reinforce the need for compliance and to reduce the risk of accidental HIPAA violations. To facilitate this process, HIPAA requires dental offices to appoint a HIPAA Security Officer for every practice. 

HIPAA Compliance for Dentists: What Needs to Be Covered in Training

Essentially, there are three aspects of HIPAA compliance for dentists for training:

  • Technical requirements
  • Physical requirements
  • Administrative requirements

Technical Requirements

Technical requirements for HIPAA training and compliance cover how patient information should be communicated electronically. This includes the processes/controls that must be implemented to protect PHI when it is at rest or in transit. As an example, employees should be trained to understand that PHI/ePHI is not allowed to be transmitted via email, Skype, and SMS.

Physical Requirements

Physical HIPAA regulations for dental offices involve the security of computer systems, networks, and the overall environment where computer systems are situated. Responsibilities included in the physical HIPAA regulations for dental offices involve:

  • Creating a faculty plan and a backup contingency plan if an emergency should occur
  • Implementing validation procedures (i.e. administrative access) to restrict physical access to PHI stored on the computer systems

Administrative Requirements

Administrative requirements for HIPAA compliance state that system administrators must be appointed to select and implement a compliant communications system in dental offices. Due to the broad nature of this definition, administration requirements include:

  • Developing best-practice policies
  • Training dental office employees on the use of the compliant communication system
  • Monitoring activity on the system
  • Ensuring HIPAA compliance by Business Associates (BAs)

For these responsibilities, HIPAA Security Officers are often designated to fulfill the administrative requirements for HIPAA compliance. 

Simplify HIPAA Compliance for Dentists by Partnering with PCIHIPAA

As you can see, HIPAA compliance for dentists requires a thorough understanding of HIPAA guidelines – and a fair amount of guesswork. Although complying with HIPAA may seem daunting and resource-intensive, the best way to simplify the process is by partnering with PCIHIPAA’s OfficeSafe platform. 

Trusted by thousands of medical practices nationwide, OfficeSafe offers comprehensive tools and services to help your dental practice stay up-to-date with HIPAA policy changes, risk assessment tools, plenty of online training modules, and more. By relying on OfficeSafe, organization create an infrastructure of security, safety, and compliance that reliably protects their business and their patients’ information.

Learn more about how OfficeSafe is the perfect choice for HIPAA compliance for dentists and schedule your free risk assessment today!

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