In the era of digital health, the ability to gather and analyse large amounts of data empowers healthcare providers to deliver personalized, efficient, and effective care—but there’s a risk that can’t be ignored, and that’s data privacy.

The healthcare industry is increasingly concerned about the improper use of third-party tracking technologies. These technologies, including cookies and pixels, enable detailed tracking of online user behaviour, presenting a significant risk if not correctly managed. They can expose sensitive patient information, violating patient privacy rights and jeopardizing trust in healthcare providers in the process.

This rising concern has drawn the attention of regulatory bodies. The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a comprehensive bulletin detailing the expectations for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-covered providers and associated businesses who utilize data tracking technologies.

The HHS bulletin underscores the need for healthcare providers to review and revamp their practices concerning these technologies. It outlines how to ensure these practices are HIPAA compliant, guiding healthcare organisations to maintain the delicate balance between leveraging technological advancements and preserving patient privacy.

In this article, we’ll explain why data analytics compliance is important, consider how to avoid noncompliance, and review vendors based on their HIPAA policies.

Navigating the Delicate Balance of Patient Data Privacy and HIPAA

As digital health evolves, so have data analytics platforms.

This ecosystem includes well-known software from Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics alongside a range of lesser-known contenders. Each solution offers a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.

Some platforms boast extensive analytics capabilities but fall short in compliance, while others offer robust privacy protections but may lack end-to-end data insights. Due to the diverse nature of healthcare providers, there’s no one-size-fits-all platform.

Providers must embark on a thoughtful selection process to find a platform that aligns with the unique needs of their organization. More than selecting a tool, providers are identifying a partner capable of adapting to the evolving needs of the healthcare industry.

Among other considerations, HIPAA compliance should be the critical and overarching factor. With the increase in regulatory scrutiny, non-compliance costs have become too grave to disregard. Beyond the financial penalties, it can inflict irreparable damage to an organization’s reputation and the trust of patients and partners.

A recent high-profile class-action lawsuit against Meta (formerly Facebook), alongside cases against Advocate Aurora Health, WakeMed Health and Hospitals, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, underscores the risks. At the heart of these cases is the unauthorized use of third-party tracking technologies leading to the exposure of sensitive patient data.

Ultimately, civil penalties for violating HIPPA can reach up to $1.5 million per year for multiple violations of the same provision. Additionally, the reputational damage from a breach of Protected Health Information (PHI) can harm an organization’s credibility. The subsequent loss of trust might deter patients from seeking care, harm existing partnerships, and diminish future collaboration and funding opportunities.

With a proactive approach to HIPAA compliance and robust safeguards for patient data, healthcare organizations can navigate the digital health landscape effectively and responsibly.

But, you might wonder, how do you decide who would make a good partner?

The Path to Finding a Compliant Analytics Vendor

In the aftermath of the new patient-tracking regulations, healthcare providers need to select compliant analytics vendors has been thrown into sharp relief.

These vendors should demonstrate an unwavering commitment to protecting PHI—this is non-negotiable. They must have comprehensive privacy and security measures that reflect an understanding of the importance of safeguarding sensitive patient data.

One critical step in this selection process is scrutinizing the vendors’ business associate agreements (BAAs). A BAA is a contract between a HIPAA-covered entity and a business associate, defining each party’s responsibilities to ensure PHI’s security and confidentiality. Confirming that these agreements align with HIPAA rules and can stand up to rigorous inspection is essential.

But that’s just the start. Simply having a compliant BAA is not sufficient. Maintaining ongoing vigilance is necessary to ensure that these vendors continually uphold the agreed-upon privacy and security standards.

How do you do this? Regular audits and assessments. These audits can verify whether vendors consistently adhere to the established standards, revealing any potential areas of weakness or non-compliance.

Ultimately, healthcare providers should be ready to pivot if a vendor falls short of the requisite standards. The dynamics of the digital health industry mean that regulations and technology are continuously evolving. Providers have to remain alert to these changes and be ready to re-evaluate their vendor relationships as needed. That’s the only way to avoid costly mistakes.

Assessing Solutions: A Closer Look at Google and Adobe

The landscape of data analytics solutions is broad and varied, with some options standing out due to their popularity among organizations across industries. However, when it comes to healthcare, the consideration of HIPAA compliance takes precedence, and this lens brings certain realities into sharp focus.

A case in point is Google Analytics, a widely used analytics tool renowned for its comprehensive features and user-friendly interface. Yet, despite its popularity, it presents a significant drawback for healthcare providers—it is not compliant with HIPAA rules.

Google does not enter into a Business Associate Agreement (BAA), a mandatory requirement under HIPAA regulations when dealing with patient data. Thus, its use poses a non-compliance risk, making it generally not recommended for healthcare providers.

Thankfully, alternatives are emerging that offer a compromise. One such vendor is Freshpaint, a novel platform that facilitates the continued use of Google Analytics while ensuring HIPAA compliance. Freshpaint is a good option for providers who want the functionality of Google Analytics without the legal risks.

The other big player is Adobe Analytics. Adobe is not inherently HIPAA compliant but offers a path toward compliance through additional services. Healthcare Shield is a real-time customer data platform tailored for providers. While it may incur additional costs, a provider could add these services and enter into a BAA with Adobe to remain compliant.

Beyond the most common solutions, other platforms offer various levels of HIPAA compliance, each with unique features and advantages. Mixpanel, for example, offers robust reporting and data visualization capabilities, while Plausible presents itself as an open-source, self-hosted option. Additionally, Piwik Pro is another noteworthy HIPAA-compliant option with robust features and benefits.

Healthcare Tracking Compliance in 2023—Key Takeaways

Now that you have a solid grasp on the challenges posed by new digital tracking technology let’s talk about solutions. Here are five things providers can do to stay compliant while maintaining a robust analytics system:

  1. Prioritize HIPAA Compliance: With hundreds of thousands of dollars and public perception on the line, no provider can afford to work with a vendor who isn’t compliant with HIPAA.
  2. Scrutinize Vendor Commitments: Evaluate each vendor’s commitment to privacy regulations, and make sure they’re willing to enter a Business Associate Agreement (BAA).
  3. Stay Up-to-Date on Regulations: Laws and regulations about HIPAA change frequently, so you should stay informed on the latest developments. Consider creating Google Alerts, for example.
  4. Educate Your Staff: Foster a culture of privacy and trust within your organization by training everyone on the importance of HIPAA compliance and recent cases that illustrate the cost of non-compliance.
  5. Seek Expert Advice: Consider consulting with digital health experts. They can help you implement changes to your tracking system and avoid common mistakes.

By default, healthcare should ensure that personal data is processed with the highest privacy protection. More importantly, understanding and adhering to data privacy principles isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity, and it’s eminently achievable.

Healthcare organizations that follow these steps will be in better shape than their peers in 2023 and beyond. Ultimately, by meeting the expectations of the HHS, providers can successfully balance the benefits of digital health analytics with the responsibilities of patient privacy.


About the author

Arun Kumar, Executive Vice President of Data & Insights with over a decade of experience delivering analytical customer experience solutions, Arun believes organizations need to combine technology at scale with the power of human insight and empathy to develop meaningful, relevant, and experience-based relationships with constituents. He has led teams for some of the top agencies in the world including Wunderman Thompson, and Publicis Sapient. Arun has helped build multi-channel touchpoints and direct-to-consumer strategies for brands like The American Red Cross, Bose, Carnival, Newell Brands, and TD Bank. 

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