What is Data Governance in Healthcare and Why is it Essential?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, there were 4,419 reported healthcare data breaches between 2009-2021. As a result of these breaches, roughly 314,063,186 health data records were exposed to those with no right or legitimate purpose to access them.

In the first half of 2022 alone, reports indicate that there were 337 healthcare data breaches that have impacted 500 or more individuals. Couple this uptick in targeted attacks on healthcare data security with the fact that 81% of data engineers anticipate being primarily cloud-based within the next two years, and it’s easy to see why healthcare and life sciences (HLS) groups are presented with a critical challenge. How can protected health information (PHI) be used responsibly if it’s increasingly prone to risk?

Addressing this issue might not be as difficult as you think. By implementing powerful data governance in healthcare data stacks, HLS organizations can proactively protect their sensitive data. In this blog, we’ll explore what data governance is in healthcare, and why it is essential.

What is Data Governance in Healthcare?

For any organization that collects, stores, and analyzes data in a modern data stack, data governance needs to be a top priority. At a high level, data governance is a collection of  policies, processes, and best practices that allows teams to secure, manage, and leverage their data. Effective data governance helps maintain data security and access management measures without inhibiting timely data access.

Data governance in healthcare must be built to handle sensitive PHI from the moment it enters an HLS organization’s data ecosystem. Protected health information refers to data that is “created, received, stored, or transmitted” by those covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. This includes any information from an individual’s medical records, including (but not limited to) demographic and biometric data, health insurance coverage, and diagnoses.

Keeping this sensitive health information protected as it moves throughout HLS data ecosystems requires data to only be accessed by those who have the right to see it. This said, data teams must also avoid implementing unnecessary or excessive governance methods that over-restrict data access. There needs to be a working balance that provides robust data security without negatively impacting its use. A strong data governance framework will establish the processes and policies to ensure that sensitive data remains accessible, secure, and trusted at all times.

Why is Data Governance in Healthcare Essential?

Any organization that handles sensitive data needs to be implementing data governance in its operations. What is it about the specific types of data handled by HLS groups that makes data governance in healthcare absolutely essential? It comes down to two major drivers:

Healthcare Data is Extremely Sensitive

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center examined the types of personal information that adults in the United States feel are the most sensitive. Of the survey respondents, a combined 81% felt that data about the “state of your health and medications you take” was sensitive information that they would not want at risk. In a similar vein, 95% of the respondents agreed that their social security number was sensitive information.

The moment a patient enters a healthcare institution’s system, this kind of sensitive information is registered in its data environment and stored for future use. This is incredibly important in HLS, as information like historical patient data and insurance coverage need to be maintained and referenced throughout a patient’s treatment. However, if the access to and integrity of patient data are not managed through effective healthcare data governance, this sensitive information will almost certainly be at risk.

Healthcare data governance builds the procedures that make certain this data remains secure and referenceable wherever it travels. Patient unease around the sensitivity of their health data can be relieved through the assurance of these dependable practices.

Compliance Laws and Regulations

Beyond the desire to keep patients safe, healthy, and satisfied with their quality of care, HLS groups must ensure they are acting in accordance with all relevant compliance laws and regulations. The most obvious case, as mentioned earlier, is compliance with HIPAA standards. Enacted in 1996 to create a data privacy standard around PHI, this regulation is applied across the HLS spectrum.

But HIPAA is not the only healthcare-related data measure currently in effect. While it is enforced at the federal level in the U.S., a majority of individual states have their own separate laws protecting PHI and PII. There are also a range of guidelines and best practices like GxP that have become standardized throughout the HLS world. Take these different types of regulations and practices into account and you’re left with quite the patchwork of compliance needs that HLS groups must meet. When the standards set by these means are not met, organizations can face wide-ranging penalties and fines peaking in the millions of dollars.

This is often where Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) stakeholders play a crucial role. Regulatory requirements need to be contextualized within an organization’s operations, and GRC teams can translate these requirements into comprehensive policies that maintain compliance standards. When these policies that stem from complex regulations are written in plain language, these measures can be more easily understood and followed across teams. By making sure that dynamic, comprehensive healthcare data governance measures are operationalized within these organizations, teams can build frameworks that satisfy this myriad of regulatory requirements without limiting necessary access and use.

How to Implement Data Governance in Healthcare

With an understanding of how important effective governance is for HLS organizations, how can teams apply these measures to protect their sensitive health data?

To strike a balance between accessibility and security, consider leveraging a data access and security platform that controls access to data through universal policy enforcement. With Immuta, data teams can create and maintain comprehensive plain-language policies that determine access to data using attribute-based access controls. By enabling data discovery, security, and monitoring, HLS data teams can govern any and all sensitive health data that enters their ecosystem and efficiently manage it to deliver the best patient care. This can drive results like those seen by Cognoa, achieving 100x faster access to data while maintaining provable compliance with FDA standards.

For a deeper dive into how sensitive HLS data can be governed and protected effectively, download The Ultimate Guide to Data Privacy for Healthcare and Life Sciences. If you want to explore Immuta’s policy-making access and governance capabilities, try our self-guided walkthrough demo.

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