April 10, 2017

What Is a Risk Assessment and Why Does It Matter?


Hostway Team

TrustedCloudHH.jpgAt its most basic definition, a risk assessment is simply a standardized way to evaluate the potential risks of an activity or process. In the hosting industry, though, the need for a risk assessment usually comes up during the need to comply with security rules enacted by the health insurance portability and accountability act (HIPAA). Any business dealing with sensitive data and health care details has a legal responsibility to protect that data. Once safeguards are in place, organizations must complete a risk assessment to ensure full HIPAA, or other security measures such as payment card industry (PCI), compliance. But what is included in the risk assessment, and what makes it so important?

You Need a Full View of Your IT Environment

Data breaches and other malicious attacks on personally identifiable information (PII) have reached an all-time high, making it more critical than ever for organizations that store, transmit, or handle data to block as many threats as possible. In this article, we'll be focusing specifically on health care data.
The purpose of a risk assessment as part of the HIPAA security rule is to provide a full, 360-degree view of the environment used to store or transmit sensitive patient data. This assessment provides the opportunity for covered entities to identify any risks or vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyber criminals to breach the network and snoop or steal valuable health care information. Once these risks have been identified, the organization can take the correct steps to mitigate these issues and prevent attacks.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), "Conducting a risk analysis is the first step in identifying and implementing safeguards that comply with and carry out the standards and implementation specifications in the security rule. Therefore, a risk analysis is foundational, and must be understood in detail before [the Office for Civil Rights] can issue meaningful guidance that specifically addresses safeguards and technologies that will best protect electronic health information."
A risk assessment pinpoints any threats that could impact sensitive health care data.

What's Included in a Risk Assessment?

The risk analysis process follows several important steps to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks when it comes to security procedures. The protection of patient data is taken very seriously within the health care industry and beyond, and it's important that covered entities treat the assessment process very carefully.
According to HHS, a risk analysis approach covers:

  1. Scope of analysis: Covered entities pinpoint all of the electronic media used to store or transmit protected health care information.
  2. Data gathering: Details regarding the covered entity's dealings with health care data are collected from all internal systems.
  3. Identification and documentation of potential risks: Organizations seek out and document the vulnerabilities that could pose a threat to health care data.
  4. Assessment of current protections: Entities identify the security measures they already have in place and use to mitigate threats to sensitive patient information.
  5. Ascertain the likelihood of occurrence: Once threats have been identified, covered entities can decide how likely they are to take place, using high, medium and low probability classifications.
  6. Identify the potential impact: Organizations can determine the possible outcomes of identified threats, including enabling unauthorized access to sensitive information, loss or corruption of data, loss of assets, and beyond.
  7. Level of risk: Here, entities uses information about the likelihood and possible impact of each threat to identify the level of risk involved.
  8. Pinpoint protection and finish documentation: The final step is to seek out the security measure that will protect against each risk and document these procedures. This phase also provides a jumping off point for the risk management process, during which entities look to actively manage threats identified during the risk assessment.


Transferring Risk to a Service Provider

The risk assessment process should also include identification of the organization responsible for each risk. For instance, certain risks may be transferred to a solution provider, depending upon the technological systems in place and the types of data house or transmitted by these platforms.
"If an organization deals with patient data, a risk assessment is required."
Hostway, a best-in-class hosting provider, ensures that all potential risks associated with HIPAA compliance and health care data overall are identified and addressed. Our organization takes part in an annual risk assessment audit so that every potential threat is identified, correctly categorized and mitigated.

Risk Assessment Best Practices

Whether an organization operates within the health care sector, or simply deals with patient data, a risk assessment is required. When it comes time to complete this process, there are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Create a plan: First and foremost, it's beneficial to have a plan in place to govern risk assessment activities. This plan should be documented in detail, and reviewed and approved by the organization's executive team.
  • Identify stakeholders: It's important that the assessment plan identifies every individual - both inside and outside of the company - who will be involved, as well as their role and responsibilities.
  • Maintain a focus on security: Remember that the purpose of this process is to reduce the threat to sensitive data and ensure that all the necessary precautions and safeguards are properly in place.

To find out more about the importance of a risk assessment and its role in HIPAA compliance, contact the experts at Hostway today.

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