If you are responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of a medical office’s IT systems, including data backups, your job has never been more important. Since offices started shifting to electronic health records, managing IT systems for medical practices has presented a unique set of challenges—the amount of data you have to manage has grown, data is subject to HIPAA regulations, and recently, your data became even more of a target for cybercriminals as they zeroed in on health facilities over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, 560 healthcare facilities were affected by ransomware according to a report by Emsisoft, a cybersecurity firm. Medical offices manage high volumes of personally identifiable information like social security numbers and patient data, and, as IT managers of medical offices can probably attest, they may not have the resources to afford dedicated cybersecurity staff, making them attractive to cybercriminals looking for vulnerable targets.
But, HIPAA requirements and cybersecurity aren’t the only reason to back up your medical practice’s data—your data is one of your most important assets and making sure it’s safe and accessible keeps your practice running smoothly.
Whether you outsource some of your IT tasks, like backups, to a managed service provider (MSP) or you manage everything in house with network attached storage (NAS) or other hardware, understanding backup best practices and the different cloud options available can help you make the best decisions to protect your important data.
In this guide for backing up medical offices, learn more about:
- Records retention.
- Backup strategies.
- Backing up NAS devices.
- Working with MSPs.
How Long Should a Medical Office Keep Records?
One of the first pieces of the puzzle to understand when planning your data backup strategy is how long you’ll need to keep medical records and the regulatory requirements that govern retention.
Unfortunately, there’s no standard timeline, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Each state has different rules and statute limitations. Some federal regulations apply as well. And different patients will fall under different guidelines—namely, you’ll probably want to retain records longer for minors. The easiest answer is to retain records for as long as the strictest rule applies.
Start to develop your retention policy by checking the state and federal regulations that may apply to your practice. The American Health Information Management Association provides a comprehensive guide on all of the state, federal, accreditation agency, and other regulations that apply to retention requirements here.
With all of these moving parts and an ever-growing data set, managing data storage for medical offices within budget can be a notorious balancing act. But, today, affordable cloud storage is making it easier for medical practices to establish much simpler and more robust retention strategies rather than fine-tuning and calibrating their strategies to manage data with limited on-premises resources.
What Is the HIPAA Regulation for Storage of Medical Records?
A common misconception is that HIPAA stipulates retention requirements for medical records. HIPAA does not govern how long medical records must be retained, but it does govern how long HIPAA-related documentation must be retained. Any HIPAA-related documentation, including things like policies, procedures, authorization forms, etc., must be retained for six years according to guidance in HIPAA policy § 164.316(b)(2)(i) on time limits. Some states may have longer or shorter retention periods. If your state’s period is shorter, HIPAA supersedes state regulations.
How Long Does a Medical Office Need to Keep Insurance EOBs?
Explanations of benefits, or EOBs, are documents from insurance providers that explain the amounts insurance providers will pay for services. Retention periods for these documents vary by state as well. Additionally, insurance providers may stipulate how long records must be kept.
The 3-2-1 Backup Strategy
If understanding how long you need to keep records is the first step in structuring your medical practice’s backup plan, the second is understanding what a good backup strategy looks like.
The 3-2-1 backup strategy is a tried and true method for protecting data. It means keeping at least three copies of your data on two different media (i.e. devices) with at least one off-site, generally in the cloud. For a medical office, we can use a simple X-ray file as an example. That file should live on two different devices on-premises, let’s say a machine reserved for storing X-rays which backs up to a NAS device. That’s two copies. If you then back up your NAS device to cloud storage, that’s your third, off-site copy.
The Benefits of Backing Up Your Medical Office
You might wonder why you need three copies. There are some compelling benefits that make a strong case for using a 3-2-1 strategy rather than hoping for the best with fewer copies of your data.
- Fast access to files. When you accidentally delete a file, you can restore it quickly from either your on-site or cloud backup. And if you need a file while you’re away from your desk, you can simply log in to your cloud backup and access it immediately.
- Quick recoveries from computer crashes. Keeping one copy on-site means you can quickly restore files if one of your machines crashes. You can start up another computer and get immediate access, or you can restore all of the files to a replacement computer.
- Reliable recoveries from damage and disaster. Floods, fires, and other disasters do happen. With a copy off-site, your data is one less thing you have to worry about in that unfortunate event. You can access your files remotely if needed and restore them completely when you are able.
- Safe recoveries from ransomware attacks. Keeping an off-site copy in the cloud, especially if you take advantage of features like Object Lock, can better prepare you to recover from a ransomware attack.
- Compliance with regulatory requirements. As mentioned above, medical practices are subject to retention regulations. Using a cloud backup solution that offers AES encryption helps your practice achieve compliance.
What Are the HIPAA Regulations for Backups and Disaster Recovery?
The HIPAA Security Final Rule, which went into full effect in 2005, and the HITECH Act of 2009 outline specific requirements for how medical practices protect the privacy and security of patient information. The HIPAA text that applies to backups and disaster recovery can be found here and the HITECH Act can be found here. There are three main requirements:
- Medical offices must have a data backup plan. The rule states that you must “maintain retrievable exact copies of electronic protected health information.”
- Data at rest must be encrypted.
- Medical offices must have a disaster recovery plan where data can be restored in a loss event.
You also need to document these procedures and test them regularly. Cloud backups help you achieve compliance with HIPAA and HITECH by keeping a copy of your data off-site while still retrievable.
Using NAS for Medical Offices
Many medical offices rely on NAS to manage their data on-site. NAS is essentially a computer connected to a network that provides file-based data storage services to other devices on the network. The primary strength of NAS is how simple it is to set up and deploy.
NAS is frequently the next step up for a small practice that is using external hard drives or direct attached storage, which can be especially vulnerable to drive failure. Moving up to NAS offers medical offices and independent practitioners a number of benefits, including:
- The ability to share files locally and remotely.
- 24/7 file availability.
- Data redundancy.
- Integrations with cloud storage that provides a location for necessary, automatic data backups.
If you’re interested in upgrading to NAS, check out our Complete NAS Guide for advice on provisioning the right NAS for your needs and getting the most out of it after you buy it.
Hybrid Cloud Strategy for Medical Practices: NAS + Cloud Storage
Most NAS devices come with cloud storage integrations that enable businesses to adopt a hybrid cloud strategy for their data. A hybrid cloud strategy uses a private cloud and public cloud in combination. To expand on that a bit, a hybrid cloud refers to a cloud environment made up of a mixture of typically on-premises, private cloud resources combined with third-party public cloud resources that use some kind of orchestration between them. In this case, your NAS device serves as the on-premises private cloud, as it’s dedicated to only you or your practice, and then you connect it to the public cloud.
Some cloud providers are already integrated with NAS systems. (Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage is integrated with NAS systems from Synology and QNAP, for example.) Check if your preferred NAS system is already integrated with a cloud storage provider to ensure setting up cloud backup, storage, and sync is as easy as possible.
Your NAS should come with a built-in backup manager, like Hyper Backup from Synology or Hybrid Backup Sync from QNAP. Once you download and install the appropriate backup manager app, you can configure it to send backups to your preferred cloud provider. You can also fine-tune the behavior of the backup jobs, including what gets backed up and how often.
Now, you can send backups to the cloud as a third, off-site backup and use your cloud instance to access files anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
Using an MSP for Medical Practices
Many medical practices choose to outsource some or all IT services to an MSP. Making the decision of whether or not to hire an MSP will depend on your individual circumstances and comfort level. Either way, coming to the conversation with an understanding of your backup needs and the cloud backup landscape can help.
When seeking out an MSP, make sure to ask about the cloud provider they’re using and how they charge for storage and data transfer. And if you’re not using an MSP, compare costs from different cloud providers to make sure you’re getting the most for your investment in backing up your data.
Cloud Storage and Your Medical Practice
Whether you’re managing your data infrastructure in house with NAS or other hardware, or you’re planning to outsource your IT needs to an MSP, cloud storage should be part of your backup strategy. To recap, having a third copy of your data off-site in the cloud gives you a number of benefits, including:
- Fast access to your files.
- Quick recoveries from computer crashes.
- Reliable recoveries from natural disasters and theft.
- Protection from ransomware.
- Compliance with HIPAA requirements and other federal and state regulations.
Have questions about choosing a cloud storage provider to back up your medical practice? Let us know in the comments. Ready to get started? Click here to get your first 10GB free with Backblaze B2.