What Is an Audit Trail, and Why Is It Important?

June 5, 2017 Christina Lembo

What Is an Audit Trail, and Why Is It Important?

What is an audit trail? Audit trails are a critical component of Patient Privacy Intelligence – they document all activities relating to user access and modification of sensitive data within an entire information technology infrastructure. FairWarning delivers a multi-layered approach to data security and patient privacy monitoring that can help you meet the challenges of regulatory compliance.

Electronic information storage has been a boon to the healthcare industry – it allows for easy reference to critical patient information in time-sensitive circumstances, alleviates physical storage challenges, and allows providers to transmit data to distant locations instantly. However, the ubiquity of electronic health records has presented numerous significant security concerns with regard to patient privacy and compromised protected health information (PHI) can result in ruinous financial and legal consequences, in addition to an irreparable rupture in public trust.

While simple access restrictions might have been sufficient to curtail unwanted or improper retrieval of protected data only a few decades ago, the modern business and technological landscapes are infinitely more complex. There are innumerable difficulties in merely limiting information access to only a few key members of the workforce, particularly in smaller healthcare organizations where team members perform multi-functional duties. In order to maintain control over private patient information, healthcare organizations must maintain robust, comprehensive audit trails.

Simply put, an audit trail is the systematic accrual of employee activity with regard to accessing secure patient information, in order to assure the integrity of the information and the proper use/access. At a minimum, audit trail features must contain:

  • Automated information capture at the time of record creation, alteration, or deletion
  • A time stamp based upon an unmodifiable clock, referencing either central server time, or the time zone in which the user accessed the information
  • Immutable storage security, rendering any alteration of the audit trail by any user or administrator impossible
  • A record of the specific user accessing or modifying the information
  • A record of the information values prior to user access or modification

Additionally, all audit trails must be available for review by management or the appropriate regulatory bodies. Furthermore, some information security policies may require the user to record the purpose of the data access or modification.

While audit trail logs must be maintained in accordance with HIPAA recordkeeping standards, all electronic applications that interface with PHI should fall under the remit of the audit trail in order to mitigate the risk of data breaches and fraud. According to a survey commissioned by FairWarning of healthcare privacy, compliance, and risk professionals, more than 96 percent of the respondents credit robust audit trails with providing a significant and effective deterrence and identification of privacy breaches and fraud.

Any organization that manages sensitive customer information files would be well-advised to recognize the critical importance of comprehensive audit trails. With cyber crimes becoming dangerously widespread and increasingly sophisticated, companies are under tremendous pressure to employ aggressive defensive protocols, and audit trails are among the most effective measures for ensuring data protection against malicious users.

While most businesses with sizeable volumes of proprietary data and private customer information do employ security tools, these tools tend to focus on external vulnerabilities, almost to the exclusion of internal user monitoring. This chasm in information protection can lead to devastating data violations, as it has been estimated that more than 60 percent of all security breaches can be traced to actors within the targeted organizations. By integrating a comprehensive audit trail into existing security solutions, such attempts at data theft can be stopped in their tracks.

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