Protected health information (PHI) is apparently not so well protected.
According to "Breach Report 2011: Protected Health Information" by the IT security firm Redspin, 19 million patient health records were breached last year, a 97-percent increase from 2010.
One obvious reason for the spike, according to the report, is simply that PHI is increasingly digitized. As Redspin President and CEO Daniel W. Berger put it, instead of a person sneaking out of a medical office with 30 patient files, it is now possible to steal millions of records at a time.
Indeed, while the most breaches occurred in the most populous states, like California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, the number of records compromised had more to do with the information being held on unsecured storage devices.
Nearly all of almost 5 million individual records compromised in Virginia were from a single breach, which happened when data on backup tapes were stolen from the car of a Tricare employee.
There are other reasons as well - among them the rapid increase in portable devices and media being used in health care, coupled with a lack of security protocols and a lack of sophisticated fraud detection systems. Berger says federal regulations so far don't even require PHI to be encrypted when it is on transportable devices. In short, once files are stolen, they are exposed.
But perhaps most significant is that health records can be a financial mother load for thieves.
PHI data, "is much more valuable than credit card information," Berger says. "It often includes deeper data: name, address, Social Security Number, diagnosis codes, insurance information, personal medical history etc."
That depth of data, "makes general impersonation more believable," he says. "Most importantly, once such a record is breached, it is potentially 'in the wild' forever, unlike credit card numbers, which can simply be changed."
And it can provide access to, "multiple types of fraud, including insurance fraud, prescription drug theft, etc."
The porous security of PHI does not seem to be for lack of spending. The Princeton, N.J-based consulting firm The Boyd Company has estimated that spending on health data security will hit $40 billion this year and climb to $70 billion by 2015 -- much of that to meet government compliance standards.
Berger believes that is because security in health care is viewed more as a project than a process, and so far is not making those records more secure.
"The adoption of electronic health records has been spurred by billions of dollars of government incentives. Yet, while HIPAA/HITECH require security policies, controls and other protections, enforcement of these measures has been lacking in many respects," he says.
But, of course, risks to healthcare organizations for PHI breaches go far beyond penalties imposed by federal regulators. They could include costs of restitution, legal fees, media relations, brand damage, and exposure to class-action lawsuits.
"Electronic health records provide the largest efficiency gain per dollar spent, but ensuring their security is the only way to realize that gain. Otherwise data breach costs will undermine the economics and erode patient confidence," Berger says.