HIPAA Disaster Recovery Plan Compliance

October 9, 2016
Compliance, Disaster Recovery, Healthcare, IT Security

HIPAA Disaster Recovery Plan Hero

Updated: April 20, 2023

Modern businesses rely on data — but what happens if that data becomes inaccessible due to a ransomware attack, or a natural disaster destroys some of your servers?

Preparing for disaster recovery is more essential now than ever, especially for healthcare companies. Losing access to sensitive patient records and other mission-critical data can bring infrastructure offline and potentially even disrupt life-saving care.

That's why the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires all covered entities to create a detailed disaster recovery plan. When disaster strikes, this plan ensures your organization will be protected from extended downtime and other serious risks.

Understanding the essential requirements of this plan can help you navigate HIPAA compliance with confidence.

What Is a HIPAA Disaster Recovery Plan?

The HIPAA Security Rule requires organizations that deal with patient information to develop a disaster recovery plan so that, if a disaster were to occur, the organization can keep functioning. This plan comprises the policies and procedures your organization will follow after an emergency to enable rapid response and data recovery.

The term “disaster” includes any unforeseen circumstance or event that can cause serious damage to your IT infrastructure and compromise or wipe out your sensitive data. A disaster recovery plan is essential for protecting your organization's mission-critical data as well as keeping recovery costs low — the longer recovery takes, the more it costs.

Additionally, a disaster recovery plan ensures you can remain compliant with HIPAA even if your electronic health records (EHR) are compromised. For example, the HIPAA Security Rule mandates that all electronic communication with patients must be tracked, logged and stored in your system for at least six years. If an outage were to wipe out that data, your organization would no longer be in compliance.

To create an effective EHR disaster recovery plan, you need to develop a solid understanding of the following:

  • The main HIPAA rules and how they apply to your specific organization
  • HIPAA disaster recovery requirements and how they affect contingency planning processes

We'll go over the most important elements of a disaster recovery plan below.

A disaster recovery plan is essential for protecting your organization's mission-critical data as well as keeping recovery costs low - the longer recovery takes, the more it costs.

What Are the Requirements of a HIPAA Disaster Recovery Plan?

Creating a HIPAA disaster recovery plan requires your organization to outline a set of protocols and procedures for restoring compromised or lost data after a disaster.

For example, the key components of a basic HIPAA disaster recovery plan include:

  • Detailed asset inventory: Compile a list of all your organization's assets. This inventory is important for streamlining processes such as identifying and backing up assets as well as meeting key compliance requirements for other standards.
  • Communication procedures: Outline how employees should report a disaster and who they should report to. Include the necessary contact information and explain each employee's role post-disaster.
  • Data restoration priority plan: Decide the order in which you will restore data following a disaster. Start with your most mission-critical data — files like ePHI and OSHA records — and continue down the list of priorities.
  • Equipment plan: Provide clear steps that your organization will take to protect your technology in the event of a disaster. This plan should include specific procedures for each of your assets in different types of disasters.
  • Vendor and service restoration plan: As soon as the disaster is over, your organization needs to be able to restore everything as quickly as possible. Provide contact information for all your vendors as well as the proper protocol for contacting each one.

All of these components must make sense for your organization's unique operating environment.

Additionally, you must train your employees on the plan so they know exactly what to do if a disaster occurs. It's vital to make your plan documentation easily accessible so employees can reference it to refresh their memory or guide their actions in an emergency.

What Are the Penalties for Noncompliance?

A violation occurs when a covered entity fails to comply with any HIPAA requirement, including the Security Rule. According to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, penalties vary depending on the severity of each individual violation:

  • Tier 1: The organization unknowingly commits a violation. Penalties range from $100 to $50,000.
  • Tier 2: The organization unknowingly violates HIPAA, though they should have been aware of the violation. Penalties range from $1,000 to $50,000.
  • Tier 3: The organization knowingly violates HIPAA and corrects the violation within 30 days. Penalties range from $10,000 to $50,000.
  • Tier 4: The organization knowingly violates HIPAA and does not correct the violation within 30 days. Penalties range from $50,000 to $1.5 million.

Note that the above penalties only apply to civil violations. Criminal violations fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and may therefore vary.

What IT Infrastructure Is Involved in a HIPAA-Compliant Disaster Recovery Plan?

While the HIPAA requirements are mostly system-agnostic, your plan must cover data across all your assets. For most healthcare institutions, this includes:

  • On-premise: Servers, computer workstations and any other on-site asset
  • Cloud-based: Applications, websites and databases
  • Endpoints: Mobile devices, such as phones and tablets

HIPAA also requires organizations to create retrievable, exact backups of all ePHI, including electronic messages between patients and business partners. Using HIPAA-compliant backup-as-a-service (BaaS) options can simplify this process by storing your data in a secure external cloud. When disaster strikes, you can easily access and restore it to anywhere, allowing business to continue.

How Do You Create a Disaster Recovery Plan?

First, go back and review the specific HIPAA requirements that apply to your organization. This will help guide you in understanding how to address each specific asset.

Working with a reliable IT consulting company can simplify this process. Experienced IT professionals can help you determine what your plan should include and guide you through the implementation process.

You can also take advantage of IT services like BaaS or disaster-recovery-as-a-service (DRaaS) solutions for assistance in setting up and implementing your plan. These solutions take the burden of managing backups and disaster recovery plan implementation off your IT team's shoulders so they can focus on more urgent tasks.

It's vital to test your complete plan before implementation so you know it will work when you need it to. Disaster recovery testing helps identify potential weaknesses in your plan so you can take action to resolve them. If you choose to work with a third-party provider, make sure they include this service.

Choose US Signal to Be Your Trusted HIPAA IT Compliance Consultant

While creating a disaster recovery plan is essential for data-driven healthcare organizations to ensure compliance with HIPAA guidelines, it can be difficult for busy IT teams to craft and manage these plans while juggling their other tasks. Leveraging managed solutions like those from US Signal can help you create a compliant plan and free your IT staff up to handle their everyday tasks.

See why healthcare institutions across the Midwest trust US Signal to assist with HIPAA compliance. Contact us online for more information.

Choose US Signal to be your trusted HIPAA IT compliance consultant

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