How to Develop Health Care Apps to Be HIPAA Compliant

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HIPAA is a set of rules governing how patient information is handled and protected. For years, it has pertained primarily to procedures taken in person to make sure data is safe and protected. The digital era has changed this considerably. Now, information is everywhere, which means HIPAA is as well.

This article explains what HIPAA is and how to make your application compliant. We also examine several tech trends in the world of healthcare.

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First, What Is HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is designed to keep patient information safe and private. It was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton and has since served as the golden standard for tracking and managing patient information within the healthcare system.

how to develop health care apps to be hipaa compliant

Historically, it has added a level of legal formality to the already long-standing tradition of patient privacy rights within the healthcare system. However, things have changed considerably in the last almost thirty years. What does HIPAA mean for new forms of healthcare servicing, such as computer and phone applications?

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HIPAA and Mobile Healthcare

Even though patient information has gone digital, the rules protecting it have not changed. There are three basic tenants by which all digital patient information is protected. To be HIPAA compliant, any application containing patient information must:

Sign Out Automatically After a Predetermined Amount of Time

Any patient who has had the headache of getting signed out every five minutes as they try to look at their bloodwork has HIPAA to thank. The idea is pretty simple. HIPAA is in place to make sure that only patients and their caregivers can access private health information. Without automated signouts, anyone could access sensitive health information without login credentials.

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Unique Login

Similarly, anyone with access to an electronic source of patient information must be distinctly logged in to the system with their login credential. For the patient, this is obvious. They need login information. They and only they can use their credentials to access their charts.

This rule also applies to anyone in the healthcare system which needs to access patient information. The idea is to create a digital trail that clearly shows who is accessing patient information, when they are doing it, and what information has been accessed. Trackable login credentials add a degree of accountability to the process.

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Encrypted Data

Finally, all electronic source files that contain patient information must be encryption protected. This is done to ensure that the information is as secure as possible, even though patient information is now significantly more accessible in some ways than it was back in the 90s when HIPAA was newly minted.

But while You can lay out the standards of HIPAA in a few bullet points, making an application HIPAA compliant application can be challenging. Below, we look at a few things to keep in mind as you work on developing a HIPAA-compliant healthcare application.

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Determine What Kind of Information You Will Be Dealing with

First, it’s essential to determine the legal classification of the information you will be dealing with. For your project, there are two likely candidates.

  • PHI: Protected health information pertains to bloodwork, bills, scans, lab results, etc. Anything you go to the doctor for is protected under PHI. Information that falls into this category is what HIPAA was created to protect and will be heavily impacted by the above-stated regulations.
  • CHI: Consumer health information pertains to less sensitive information such as that provided by wearable health technology. This information might include steps taken, average heart rate, etc. Consumers will still expect a high degree of privacy concerning this information. However, by HIPAA standards, you’ve entered much more flexible territory.

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Measure Twice, Cut Once

It’s essential to get every aspect of your app HIPAA compliant. For developers, this can be a tall order, asking that you develop high-quality tech and reach a sophisticated legal understanding of something that can be very complicated and hard to understand.

Here, it’s a good idea to follow the old carpentry adage of measuring twice and cutting once. After you have reached an understanding of HIPAA, consider bringing in an expert to double-check your work.

While getting a consultation won’t be cheap, it will keep you out of legal jeopardy. A failure at HIPAA compliance can result in tens of thousands of dollars in fees. It can also quickly ruin the reputation of your application.

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Be Selective in the Data You Take

One of the nice things about data is that you usually don’t have to be particularly selective. Storage is easy, and algorithms and databases simplify processing and navigation. However, in this case, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

The less patient information your application handles, the easier it is to remain HIPAA compliant. Ask yourself at every step of the process: do we need to handle this information? If not, you shouldn’t.

It would help if you were equally cautious about how you classify information. If data is not going to be classified as PHI, you must be confident in the decision.

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Consider the Merits of IaaS

Developing a HIPAA-compliant app from the ground up costs tens of thousands of dollars upfront, plus more in audits and upkeep. This might be an appropriate solution for some people. However, consider the merits of investing in HIPAA-compliant pre-configured infrastructure if possible.

IaaS or infrastructure as a service provides you with the resources you need to make your app HIPAA compliant. It costs less than building your app from the ground up and saves significant time, allowing you to focus all of your attention on the tech instead of the jargon.

IaaS is an increasingly big industry so vet your options carefully. Even though you won’t be handling HIPAA compliance anymore, any failures will reflect negatively on you and your app. Do plenty of research, and learn as much as possible about potential providers before signing an agreement.

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Understanding Mobile Healthcare Technology Trends:

Ok. So we now understand the ins and outs of keeping a healthcare app HIPAA compliant. But what’s going on in the world of healthcare technology? There are several mobile healthcare technology trends taking place that are important for anyone looking to penetrate the market to understand. Such as:

Wearable Healthcare Technology

Wearables utilize IoT technology (Internet of Things) to combine software and hardware. Wearable devices include step trackers, heart rate monitors, and anything that takes continuous data on your health as you go about your day. You can use these devices to track fitness levels and establish an accurate baseline for important healthcare considerations such as a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate, and more.

Wearables were once considered a luxury item (think Fitbit), but they are quickly transitioning into an essential piece of preventative care technology. Not only do they provide important insights that you could not practically attain through other means, but they also provide a degree of ease in a world where communicating face to face with healthcare providers is becoming increasingly difficult.

With wearables, you don’t have to sit down in person with a doctor for them to take a look at your health information. Remote monitoring adds ease and immediacy to a world of staffing shortages and overwhelmed hospitals.

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Remote Communication

Virtual patient communication portals have considerably more importance over Covid-19. Since the pandemic, face-to-face interactions with doctors have become difficult or impossible for some people.

Stir in hospitals bed shortages and an ongoing nursing crisis, and the situation only worsens. Remote communication tools have allowed patients to communicate with healthcare providers from the comfort of their homes.

While many situations still require a face-to-face appointment, certain things, such as small questions or consultations, can be handled remotely.

For the patient, this means quick answers to their question without the need to risk exposing themselves to Covid. For the hospital system, it means maximizing the use of their limited staff. One nurse or doctor can field dozens of patient questions remotely in the time it takes for one or two face-to-face consultations.

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Nursing Communication

It’s no secret that the world of nursing has been under intense stress over the last couple of years. In recent memory, the responsibilities of a nurse have been so dangerous and stressful, resulting in a mass exodus of qualified nurses.

An extensive suite of communicative tools has been developed to help with the problem. For example, scheduling apps make it easy for nurses to communicate with one another and make schedules that maximize the impact of limited resources.

Good training and reference programs also help nurses do their work faster and better. Healthcare technology trends are currently all about efficiency. The goal is to maximize the quality of care while adding speed to the process.

Hospitals everywhere struggle with the burden of providing excellent care with dwindling resources. Any technology that can help lighten the load will be sincerely welcomed.

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Improving Nurses Lives

In a similar vein, any technology that can improve the lives of nurses will be very welcome in today’s marketplace. In the last heading, we discussed how collaborative technology could improve shift management and make things easier for nurses. While this is true, it’s not the only way to develop an app for nursing.

Nursing Burnout

Nursing burnout levels have skyrocketed over the past two years. Even without a pandemic, the nursing profession is notoriously tricky, characterized by twelve-hour shifts, emotionally draining experiences, and physical exhaustion that compounds over time. Applications that reduce burnout in nursing have the potential to be very successful.

This technology needn’t necessarily be logistical. It could also serve to reduce stress or help nurses adopt healthy lifestyles. For example, an application designed to help people who work on complex shifts track healthy eating and sleep habits might help diminish nursing burnout.

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Patient Communication

Nurses interact with people from many different backgrounds. Sometimes patients speak little to no English, making it very difficult to communicate essential things promptly. Applications that ease language barriers make nurses’ lives easier and could significantly impact patient outcomes.

Training

Nursing, like police work, is often characterized by long periods of boredom broken up by intense, immediate situations. Having experience in how to handle emergencies is an essential skill that newly minted nurses might not have acquired yet. Simulation apps may help new nurses get emergency experience.

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Reference Applications

Finally, new nurses have a lot of information to keep in their heads. From background knowledge of a wide range of conditions to understanding facts about drug interactions, nurses need to be able to cater quickly to the patient’s specific needs. Applications that can provide quick reference materials for doctors and nurses not only make the job easier but have the potential to save lives.

Technology that is good for nurses is also suitable for patients. Any app that makes the lives of people working within the healthcare system easier can have a significant social impact. Best of all, most of the apps above have little to nothing regarding HIPAA requirements.

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Regional Regulations

It’s essential to keep in mind that HIPAA is a distinctly American invention. The above standards will not necessarily clear your application to be run in other countries. For example, the European Union has privacy standards that application developers must meet.
This article has dealt exclusively with the standards laid out in HIPAA.

Summary

To get a better understanding of what your application’s legal status will be overseas, additional research will be necessary. While there may be significant overlap amongst nations, it’s a good idea to get your legal ducks in a row before you get too deep in the development process.