Protecting PII: A Quick Guide
for Public Health Organizations
With the ever-increasing pace and scope of digitization, cybersecurity risks, legal obligations, ethical considerations, and a growing emphasis on data-driven decision-making, safeguarding Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in public health is more crucial and challenging than ever. In this blog post, we’ll differentiate between direct and indirect identifiers, explore the importance of protecting PII, and provide practical measures your organization can consider to ensure the security and privacy of sensitive information.
PII refers to information that identifies specific individuals. In public health organizations, PII encompasses data elements often included in client records, such as a person’s name, address, date of birth, and contact information. This PII comes in two types: direct identifiers and indirect identifiers.
Differentiating Direct and Indirect Identifiers
Direct identifiers, like full names and social security numbers, can identify individuals without additional data. Indirect identifiers, such as date of birth, gender, and ethnicity or race, may not directly identify individuals but can potentially do so when combined with other data or external information, including social media profiles, census data, and voter registration records.
The Importance of Protecting PII
Protecting PII, both direct and indirect identifiers, is crucial in public health for several reasons:
Privacy and Confidentiality
Safeguarding PII ensures individuals’ personal health information remains confidential, respecting their right to privacy. Protection is particularly important on topics such as sexual health, mental health, and infectious diseases, when people may be more reluctant to seek care if confidentiality is not assured.
Trust and Cooperation
When people trust their PII will be protected, they may be more likely to cooperate with public health initiatives. Building trust through safeguarding PII thus enables your public health organization to engage in more effective disease surveillance, outbreak responses, and contact tracing.
Protecting PII results in more accurate data. When individuals feel confident in data protection, they may provide more accurate and complete information, which allows your public health organization to better understand the community’s health status, identify trends, and make informed decisions regarding resource allocation, preventive measures, and interventions.
Safeguarding PII can help prevent discrimination. Unfortunately, some health conditions still carry social stigma. Even as we fight to reduce this stigma, we can help ensure fair and equitable treatment for all by protecting sensitive health information.
Robust security measures are necessary to protect PII in public health, which can include Personal Health Information (PHI) in test results and medical records, from breaches and unauthorized access. Implementing strong data security protocols and encryption methods helps maintain the integrity and confidentiality of PII.
Safeguarding PII aligns with three ethical principles of public health practice: respecting the client’s autonomy, doing good (ensuring beneficence), and avoiding harm (nonmaleficence). It demonstrates a commitment to ethical conduct through upholding clients’ rights to privacy and handling sensitive health information responsibly.
Legal and Regulatory Compliance
Public health organizations must comply with laws and regulations governing PII protection, such as HIPAA for Public Health Information (PHI) in the United States. Adhering to legal requirements ensures appropriate handling of PII, consent, security measures, and data sharing practices.
In summary, protecting PII in public health is crucial for maintaining privacy, building trust, obtaining accurate data, preventing stigma and discrimination, ensuring data security, fulfilling ethical responsibilities, and complying with legal and regulatory frameworks. It constitutes a vital component of effective and ethical public health practice.
Best Practices for Protecting PII
To enhance PII protection, public health organizations can implement measures that include the following:
Training and Awareness
Comprehensive training for all staff members on the importance of protecting PII, applicable laws and regulations, organizational policies, and best practices for data security can ensure that everyone in your organization is aware of their responsibilities and understands how to handle PII appropriately.
Robust access controls, including unique user accounts, strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, and role-based permissions help make certain that those individuals who work for or on behalf of your organization are able to access only the information necessary for their job responsibilities.
Secure Data Storage and Transmission
Secure storage and transmission systems for PII depend on the form of the data: physical or digital. Measures for physical data include locked cabinets and rooms with restricted access. Measures for digital data include secure servers and encrypted cloud storage. When transmitting PII electronically, users can employ secure communication channels and encryption protocols to keep the data safe.
Regular Software Updates and Patching
Keeping all software up-to-date with the latest patches and updates is a means for your organization to address any known software vulnerabilities and so help reduce the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches.
Incident Response Plan
A comprehensive incident response plan including steps for identifying and reporting incidents, mitigating impact, notifying affected individuals, and collaborating with relevant authorities sets your organization up to effectively address data breaches or inadvertent disclosure of PII.
Regular Audits and Risk Assessments
Conducting regular audits and risk assessments helps your organization identify vulnerabilities, gaps in security practices, and areas for improvement. You can assess potential threats, evaluate your existing security measures, and ensure compliance with regulations.
When your organization works with third-party vendors or service providers, you want to ensure they also have appropriate security measures in place to protect PII. It may be useful to clarify data protection requirements and responsibilities in contracts and agreements.
Through implementing measures like these, your public health organization can significantly enhance the protection of PII, reduce the risk of data breaches, and safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of clients’ sensitive information. Please note that the practices outlined here provide only general guidance and need to be tailored to meet the specific requirements of your organization and jurisdiction.
In our ever-increasingly digitized society, protecting clients’ Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in public health has never been more important, for both ethical and practical reasons. Safeguarding PII plays a pivotal role in ensuring clients’ rights to privacy, building trust, gathering accurate data, preventing discrimination, maintaining data security, and fulfilling legal and regulatory obligations.
But protecting PII effectively comes with myriad challenges. Fortunately, public health organizations can strengthen their approach to PII protection with a number of best practices such as comprehensive staff training, robust access controls, secure data storage and transmission, developing incident response plans, conducting regular audits and risk assessments, and more. By prioritizing measures like these, public health organizations contribute to the broader goals of ethical and effective public health practice, fostering a culture of responsibility and trust in handling their clients’ sensitive health information.
At Luther Consulting, we know the safety of your clients’ data is critically important, both to you and your clients. We work closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state health departments, and other agencies to ensure we are following the most recent IT security recommendations and protocols. We put our systems through frequent and rigorous security scans, encrypt database fields, and require two-factor authentication for system access. We even include our name-based, client-centered public health system, Aphirm®, in our independent SOC 2® Type 2 Security Compliance audit on an annual basis.
To learn more about how our data management solutions can help your public health organization protect PII, please don’t hesitate to contact us – we’d love to hear from you!
- PHI vs. PII: What’s the difference?
- What Is PHI, and How Can Healthcare Organizations Keep It Secure?
- Key Differences Between PHI and PII, How They Impact HIPAA Compliance