Clinical Lab Automation: Improving Patient Privacy and Data Security

Implementing best practices for automated system security lets clinical labs protect patient data and ensure legal compliance

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Morgana Moretti, PhD

Morgana Moretti, PhD, is a scientist and medical writer with more than 60 articles published in peer-reviewed biomedical literature. She holds a doctoral degree in biochemistry and has expertise in...

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Published:Aug 14, 2023
|Updated:Sep 15, 2023
|4 min read

Clinical lab automation has revolutionized the healthcare industry, offering faster turnaround times and improved accuracy. But this rapid technological advancement has also introduced challenges around patient privacy and data security.

Failure to protect patient data against unauthorized access or misuse violates patients’ right to privacy and can result in legal consequences and damage to your lab's reputation. If you don't want malicious parties to get their hands on sensitive patient data, here are four strategies (and some best practices) that can help.

1. Adhere to data privacy regulations

Data privacy regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), set strict guidelines for collecting, storing, and transmitting patient data. Having clinical lab systems that comply with data privacy regulations is crucial for protecting confidential information.

Lab managers should also provide regular training to employees to ensure they understand and follow the requirements of these regulations. Training programs can include information on the types of patient data considered protected health information and how lab workers can manage and safeguard that information. Employees must also understand the consequences of violating HIPAA or GDPR and the importance of reporting suspected breaches or incidents to their supervisors.

2. Implement granular access

Stored patient data should have strict access controls based on the principle of least privilege. This approach gives users access to only the data they need to perform their job functions.

For instance, consider a scenario in which a clinical lab technician collects a patient’s blood sample and runs the analysis in an automated system that also stores patient data. The physician who requested the test needs access to the results, as do the technician who performed the analysis and the lab’s billing department.

With granular access control, each of these individuals would have access only to the specific data they need to perform their job functions. The physician would have access to the patient’s test results; the lab technician would have access to both the results and the data collected during the analysis. The billing department would have access to the data needed to bill the patient and the insurance company, but nothing else.

Another advantage of implementing granular access is that it provides different levels of permissions for a given set of data—one individual may be able to edit the data, whereas another might have permission to read the data, but not to make any changes.

Not only is granular access aligned with patients’ preferences regarding personal health information privacy, but it also reduces the risk of data breaches and other unauthorized access incidents by placing strict boundaries on patient data.

3. Encrypt sensitive data

Encryption is the process of encoding sensitive data so that only authorized individuals can read it.

End-to-end encryption is considered particularly secure because it provides additional protection over other types of encryption, such as transport layer security, secure sockets layer, or even HTTPS. The method encrypts data on the sender’s device or system using an encryption key or code that only the intended recipient can access. This ensures that no one else can read or understand the data during transmission, providing additional protection against unauthorized access.

Although encryption is not the only measure clinical labs should take to protect patient data, it is a critical part of a comprehensive approach to data privacy and security in health care.

4. Conduct regular security audits and tests

Security audits and tests are essential to maintaining systems and data integrity in a clinical lab. HIPAA compliance audits, penetration tests, and vulnerability assessments are examples of security procedures that can help you identify gaps in your lab security infrastructure.

HIPAA compliance audits assess the organization’s comprehension of HIPAA regulations, their methods of safeguarding patient data, the effectiveness of their HIPAA violation prevention measures, their documentation practices, and how they stay updated with changes to HIPAA policies.

Penetration tests simulate a real-world attack on an organization’s systems, applications, or networks. This test employs various hacking methods to identify weaknesses in an organization’s operating systems, mobile device platforms, or cloud technologies. Penetration tests can find areas for improvement in internal or public-facing systems, such as electronic health records or patient portals.

A vulnerability assessment evaluates how a system should operate and compares that to its current operational state. For example, a laboratory information management system (LIMS) vulnerability assessment could reveal that the system is not configured to encrypt patient data in transit, which could result in data leakage if a third party intercepts network traffic. The assessment report would then recommend configuring the LIMS to ensure the encryption of all patient data in transit.

Integrating these types of security audits and tests can aid in safeguarding patient information and identifying data vulnerabilities in the clinical lab.

Other strategies to protect patient data

In addition to the measures outlined above, here are some best practices that can help protect patient data when using automation in the clinical lab.

  • Collect the smallest amount of patient data needed to perform the necessary tests.

  • Use secure communication channels, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and secure email, to transmit patient data.

  • Regularly update software and hardware to stay up to date with security patches and fixes.

  • Ensure that all automation systems are password-protected and require strong passwords.

  • Require lab employees to use two-factor or multistep authentication, such as a password and a fingerprint or smart card, to access patient data.

  • Have a plan for responding to security incidents, including steps to mitigate harm and notify affected parties.

As clinical labs’ reliance on technology and automation grows, it is essential to prioritize data privacy and security to maintain patient trust and ensure quality care delivery. By implementing best practices for security in their automated systems, labs can enjoy the benefits of automation while proactively protecting patient data, ensuring compliance, and avoiding costly data breaches and legal repercussions.

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Failure to protect patient data against unauthorized access or misuse violates patients’ right to privacy and can result in legal consequences and damage to your lab's reputation.
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