What You Need to Know About Microsoft 365, SharePoint and HIPAA Compliance
When healthcare organizations evaluate which software applications to use, one of the most common questions decision-makers have is whether an application in question is HIPAA-compliant. Negligent or willful violations of data privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) can result in significant fines and legal consequences. Moreover, when providers mismanage their client’s Protected Health Information (PHI), they lose the trust of their clients – and their business.
But the text of the Act itself does not provide technical specifications for compliance that software applications must adhere to. Nor does the U.S. government evaluate software applications to make sure that they are inherently designed in such a way as to comply with the Act. What HIPAA lays out is a set of national standards for the storage and transmission of all individually identifiable PHI in any media. Healthcare IT administrators must then evaluate whether software applications can be configured in such a manner as to meet those standards.
Are Microsoft 365 and SharePoint HIPAA-compliant?
Inherently, neither Microsoft 365 nor Microsoft SharePoint are HIPAA-compliant. However, these two powerful and flexible software applications can be configured to meet HIPAA’s national standards. They’re both widely used by businesses and organizations of varying sizes and sectors primarily because you can configure them to handle a range of workflows and processes.
Microsoft 365 contains not only perennially popular applications like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint but also essential applications like email clients (Outlook), videoconferencing (Teams), and cloud storage (OneDrive), among others. Integrating with all of these applications natively is SharePoint, a collaborative platform that can help your organization manage documents, communicate centrally, and work collaboratively.
If you’re considering deploying these enterprise applications at your healthcare organization, or you’re already using both applications but have some doubts as to whether you comply, it’s essential first to understand what HIPAA’s data privacy standards are to understand if they’re your best option, and if so, how to configure them.
What Are HIPAA’s Standards Regarding PHI?
HIPAA’s data privacy provisions apply not only to healthcare organizations but also to what is referred to as covered entities. Covered entities include providers, healthcare plan providers, and healthcare clearinghouses. These provisions are found both in the HIPAA Privacy Rule (also known as Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information) and the HIPAA Security Rule (or Security Standards for the Protection of Electronic Protected Health Information).
In brief, the Privacy Rule defines PHI and mandates that covered entities follow specific rules when using or disclosing this information. It also provides individuals with specific rights concerning maintaining and disclosing their records. The Security Rule holds that covered entities must ensure that PHI is kept confidential, secure, and available. Under HIPAA, covered entities must take all reasonable measures to safeguard PHI from external and internal threats. Concerning PHI in electronic form, covered entities must develop, implement, and maintain proactive cybersecurity plans; ensure that data integrity is not compromised, and be able to provide PHI to authorized entities upon request.
Covered entities must also consider business associates when developing HIPAA-compliance plans. Business associates are defined as third parties contracted to help covered entities provide specific aspects of healthcare service provision and, to do so, must receive PHI from the covered entity. Suppose you’re contracting out work to a business associate. In that case, you should obtain written assurance that they will only use the PHI you provide for its intended use and will safeguard that information to ensure you can meet your HIPAA obligations.
This last provision is essential for any cloud-based software application you’re considering. If you use Microsoft 365 or SharePoint to store PHI, you’ll automatically be sharing them with Microsoft. To use them and comply, you’ll need to obtain a Business Associate Agreement from HIPAA to start. Fortunately, Microsoft routinely provides such agreements to entities that cover enterprise-wide applications such as Microsoft 365 and SharePoint.
HIPAA Considerations When Deploying or Configuring Microsoft 365 and SharePoint
Whether you’re considering purchasing or deploying Microsoft 365 or SharePoint or are revisiting their existing configurations to ensure HIPAA compliance, you’ll want to keep several aspects of HIPAA in mind:
Microsoft 365 also offers administrators strong identity and access management tools that can help you ensure that only authorized staff and third parties have access to health data. You can partition your data on a SharePoint site, so business associates only receive the PHI needed to do their work. And you can segment your documents and data internally so that your employees can only see what they need to do their jobs, mitigating the risk of insider threats.
Microsoft also offers users integrated threat protection solutions that can keep PHI and other sensitive information secure across every Microsoft application you use. These solutions are not merely designed to offer a robust threat response but also to identify and prevent attacks through advanced detection and analysis systems.
Data Loss Prevention
To ensure you can provide frontline staff and clients with complete PHI when needed, Microsoft provides powerful tools to help you classify data, create data loss prevention policies for sensitive information, and manage data and records lifecycles in compliance with relevant regulations.
While Microsoft 365 and SharePoint are capable of providing your organization’s healthcare providers and administrators with an operating environment suited to their needs, properly configuring these applications can be challenging. Moving from legacy systems to the Microsoft platform carries the risk of data loss, which may result in an unintentional but costly HIPAA violation. Moreover, configuring each application to account for your organization’s specific services, clients, workforce, and workflows can be challenging, especially if your IT staff members already have considerable responsibilities.
Deployment and data migration are not the only considerations. Inherently, HIPAA requires covered entities and business associates to continuously safeguard PHI from external and internal threats and data loss. And while Microsoft enjoys robust security measures continuously upgraded for its clients, those measures do not cover the whole of an organization’s IT operating environment. Vulnerabilities can lie in many components, from dated on-prem switches to faulty unshielded cabling. No matter how thoughtfully and strategically you deploy Microsoft 365 and SharePoint to comply with the Privacy and Security rules, you may easily find your data in those applications compromised for other reasons.
Deploying Microsoft 365 and SharePoint Effectively for HIPAA Compliance
To deploy Microsoft 365 and SharePoint effectively and in a HIPAA-compliant fashion, you need CenterPoint IT. You need a trusted and local managed services provider who can help you deploy and configure these applications to support your operations effectively and ensure you have the proper security measures to safeguard your data. And you need an Atlanta-based business with significant experience in backup and disaster recovery services in the event of a manmade or natural disaster.
Many providers don’t proactively plan for HIPAA compliance until they face regulatory or legal action. Don’t wait another day to ensure your organization is compliant. And don’t purchase or deploy Micorosft 365 or SharePoint until you talk with us. We can ensure you have the right plan to be HIPAA compliant. Contact us today.