The Smart Dentist’s Guide to Storing and Handling Dental Patient Data

As a dental provider, patients look to you for expert advice and care for the health of their gums and teeth. They also expect social responsibility and privacy, as they trust you with sensitive personal information.

Dental patient data falls under the protection of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This act holds dentists to a national standard of expectation that they will protect patients’ medical records and other private health information. It also limits the release of health records and empowers patients with more control over their data.

HIPAA also protects health care providers. Dentists who take the necessary precautions to ensure they meet HIPAA requirements help lower the chances that their patient information could fall into the wrong hands. It also reduces the risk of facing substantial fines and penalties like malpractice for dentists and loss of license.

Why is Patient Data Management Important?

Your patients’ personal health information (PHI) includes highly sensitive details that could be detrimental if black market hackers should gain its access. In addition to your patients’ personal dental history, this information consists of social security numbers, addresses, birthdates, insurance information, and credit card numbers. A breach of this information could lead to financial ruin or identity theft.   

The number of health information breaches are rising, and dental offices are not immune from assaults. A 2019 ransomware attack impacted 400 dental offices, preventing dentists from accessing their patient data and using their systems. IBM reports that the cost of a healthcare data breach has jumped to $429 per record.

How you handle and store patient data helps build trust and patient loyalty. By protecting your patients, you not only develop their confidence in you and your practice. You potentially gain more business by referrals from people who trust your work ethic.

4 Best Practices for Storing and Handling Patient Data

As a dentist, you have a legal obligation to understand HIPAA requirements and to ensure your practice is HIPAA-compliant. To help ensure your patients’ data is always handled securely and with integrity, follow these four best practices.

1. Provide a Secure Environment

Many offices retain paper documentation for their patient records. You should physically monitor your patients’ PHI and ensure the environment in which it is stored is safe from potential damage, like floods or accidental disclosure.

Begin with a double-lock rule. Anyone in your office who tries to physically access medical records must get past two locks to do so. You can house files in a locked filing cabinet kept in a locked storage room. Only authorized personnel may have access to the two keys securing important paperwork.

Consider storing records in a fireproof safe. In the event of a disaster, your patients’ information will be protected. Another option is to keep files that aren’t in regular use at an undisclosed off-site storage facility. This frees up space at your office and protects documents from intruders or facility maintenance issues, like burst pipes that could destroy records.

2. Utilize Physical Safeguards

Incidental disclosure, like one patient overhearing a conversation where PHI is mentioned, is a breach of security. Physical safeguards can help minimize such occurrences from happening. They can be physical barriers between the waiting room and the administrative offices. Soundproofing patient rooms, covering medical charts, and even using code identification when discussing PHI with other medical team members can help minimize the leak of protected information.

3. Track Records with a Logging System

A common cause of HIPAA violations is user error. Create a process for retrieving and managing paper records, and then teach your staff how to properly follow that process. Through clear, frequent communication, you can make sure your team knows the protocol and follows it to effectively avoid mishandling PHI.

Develop a logging system that tracks who has accessed the files and when. Explain that employees will be held accountable for medical records when in use. Train your team so they understand the logging system before being authorized to handle patient files.

4. Go Digital

Consider switching to an electronic document management system (EDMS). Inputting information is quicker, storage takes up less room, and you can easily locate records with a keyword search. Electronic files provide the added security of avoiding the possibility of physical damage that would destroy paper files. Outdated hardware and software are especially vulnerable to a data breach, so it’s important to maintain current equipment and software for digital storage.
You can provide an added level of security when you employ:

  • Encryption: This provides an essential safeguard against a breach of your patients’ data. Encryption should extend to your practice's computer hardware, handhelds, mobile devices, and removable media. Your patient data storage encryption must be consistent with the guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the decryption code or password must not be compromised.
  • Teledentistry: Advancements in dental technology, including laser dentistry, 3D printing, and intraoral scanning, are important innovations that significantly improve the patient's oral health and comfort. Because these tools are connected to a network, they also provide an additional gateway to patient data, making them especially vulnerable to cyberattacks. Teledentistry tools should also be equipped with cybersecurity protection.
  • Cloud Storage: Information maintained on the cloud is stored on internet servers rather than a computer’s hard drive. This data can be accessed remotely and frees up storage space on office equipment. It is convenient and protects medical records through encryption.

Protect Your Practice with a Dental Malpractice Insurance Company

The safeguarding of patient information is essential to the success of any dental practice. No matter how careful you are in protecting PHI, there’s no guarantee that your practice won’t encounter a security breach. For added peace of mind, consider purchasing a dental professional liability insurance policy. Dentist’s Advantage offers protection from financial risks no matter where you are in your dental career.

We offer a variety of coverage solutions for your dental practice. Contact us today for a dental practice insurance quote.