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Nobody Cares About HIPAA

March 15, 2012

Compliance in many organizations is seen as only a costly inconvenience

By Glenn S. Phillips

Sometimes clarity comes out of the blue, including clarity about compliance issues. Recently I was meeting with friend and business associate Ben Drake. His company works with networking and data protection technology for a number of businesses.

I mentioned how some organizations with obvious HIPAA compliance issues seem uninterested in putting forth the effort to resolve them. Some won’t even acknowledge they have issues. Ben shrugged and matter-of-factly said, “Nobody cares about HIPAA.”

That took a minute to soak in, but I got his point. Knowing Ben, I knew his comment was not literal and was for effect. But generally speaking, he has a strong point. In the greater scheme of many businesses, HIPAA (and other regulations) are commonly seen by management and staff as an annoyance and another meaningless expense.

Some organizations make only token efforts toward compliance, and those efforts are typically the least that can be done for the least cost. There is often an incomplete, one-time effort to “get compliant,” but nothing much more after that. In Ericka Chickowski’s recent article “Healthcare Security Pros Need To Speak The Language Of Finance,”Rick Kam pointed out that healthcare security issues “basically put the CFO and the CEO to sleep because they’re talking compliance, talking costs, and talking about things that are not that interesting to these executives.”

While there are exceptions, I think Kam’s observation is THE reality for many organizations, even if no one will openly admit it. A common course of action by this type of leadership is usually one of three approaches: postpone, ignore, or delegate.

Postponement is easy to emotionally justify: “I’m very busy. I need to wait until I have time to really understand everything and not make a bad decision.” The problem here is that security dangers don’t care whether you wait; they will continue to put the organization’s information and reputation at risk.

Ignoring the issue is popular, even if it is in the disguise of pretending to address the problem. Typically this is uncovered in audits where the organization convinced itself that difficult passwords and encrypted drives were all they needed to be compliant. The full picture of compliance was never identified, acknowledged, or funded.

Leaders who delegate security usually convince themselves they are handing a complex or technical task to someone who is more knowledgeable. That may be true to a point, but what they usually also do is inappropriately delegate the oversight of processes and the leadership critical for compliance and security. This approach then creates a host of new problems.

There is an old saying that you can tell what is genuinely important to someone (or to a company) by ignoring their words and simply watching where they spend their time and money. In many organizations, this simple test cuts through the emotion-based excuses and exposes who really understands the risks and benefits of compliance.

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