The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was put in place to standardize the electronic recording and transmission of medical information. HIPAA-compliant systems enable the protection of insurance for people changing jobs, simplify the administration of electronic healthcare transactions, and outline the tax-related provisions for healthcare. To ensure that these systems protect the integrity, availability, and confidentiality of Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) and Personally Identifiable Information (PII), observability is unarguably a crucial aspect. 

This article explores the role of observability in HIPAA-compliant environments and how to best select a HIPAA-compliant observability platform.

Observability for HIPAA-compliant Environments

Observability is considered to be the responsibility of both application developers and operators, who collectively set up and maintain platforms that collect metrics and logs along with tracing audits. An ideal observability platform reduces the need for debugging in production by detecting flaws in application functions and then alerting the relevant staff or performing pre-programmed escalation functions. 

The Need for Observability in HIPAA-Compliant Platforms

Observability provides DevOps teams greater control of systems that are highly distributed, dynamic, and loosely coupled. There are a few key factors required to implement observability for HIPAA-compliant platforms.

Enhanced Application Reliability

One of HIPAA’s mandates outlines that any Protected Health Information (PHI) system should offer high availability and reliability. To help with this, observability enables DevOps teams to understand application behavior and whether it is likely to fail. Observability platforms aggregate and process event data so software teams can understand the state of their systems objectively and clearly. Observability systems also help platform vendors and users with baselines and targets for application performance. The right observability mechanism, as a result, is considered a key component of the reliability initiative, the core element of SRE.

Satisfying Compliance Requirements

HIPAA and similar regulations require complete visibility into the implementation of mechanisms to secure data against external exposure. Using event logs and audit tracing, software teams can use observability platforms to detect potential intrusions and application vulnerabilities, enabling proactive remediation of security threats. 

Revenue Growth

Observability systems provide helpful insights into a user’s experience while using PHI systems. Businesses can then use trend data on how well users receive new features and updates to implement strategies that lead to increased revenues. Observability platforms also help enable an efficient model of customer-driven product development that guarantees high ROI by helping companies avoid wasting resources on useless features that are later dropped.

Contextualization of Application and Traffic Data

Generally, PHI systems are built with numerous service integrations that make it difficult for software teams to track environmental data flows. Each of these integrations comes with its own control plane, forcing DevOps teams to go through a learning curve to ensure end-to-end efficiency. Observability platforms offer a central hub from which teams can manage and monitor data movement across all services, reducing the strain and time needed to manage HIPAA-compliant applications.

HIPAA-Compliant Event Logging and Log Management

The HIPAA Act includes a security rule provision on audit controls, which states that entities in a PHI system must implement technology that records and analyzes activity and events. HIPAA-compliant platform administrators should, therefore, keep detailed audits of every transaction that occurs within their software environment. 

These transactions include access control changes, user logins, data store queries, and administrator actions. Proper log management tools should include a customizable log retention period and persistent storage so that archived logs can be brought up for investigation when needed. Documenting logs and events can also help teams identify suspicious activities for faster vulnerability remediation.

HIPAA-Compliant Security Monitoring

One HIPAA regulation requires the periodic review of all activities related to the PHI system. Observability platforms should streamline this review by forwarding all audit logs from the system to a central dashboard where teams can monitor and analyze system data. These dashboards should also include forms and automated prompts that report on system activity. 

Since a Private Health Information system typically contains multiple subsystems, monitoring helps organizations build HIPAA-compliant systems by giving a clearer picture of log data through analysis, association, and visualization.

Selecting a HIPAA-Compliant Observability Platform

Protected Health Information (PHI) systems include hundreds of integrations for collaboration between different entities, improve service quality, and advance research. It is important to carefully examine any third parties before integrating them into your production toolchain. To keep PHI safe, the chosen provider of a plugin must remain fully compliant with HIPAA mandates. 

When looking for an observability platform, there are some key aspects to consider to ensure your PHI system remains robustly secure. 

Considerations When Choosing a HIPAA-Compliant Observability Platform

Support

The proliferation of cloud computing has increased the amount of data stored off-site. Most PHI systems are hosted on cloud computing platforms, making support a vital factor in ensuring compliance and a favorable user experience. The chosen HIPAA platform should have 24/7 support with an efficient ticketing system to ensure issues are segregated and addressed on a priority basis. The service provider should also continually monitor and resolve issues via its observability functionality as soon as users contact them.

Data Center Location

A HIPAA-compliant service should be hosted in an area that can facilitate the audit and inspection of the platform housing your PHI. Physical security should be a top consideration when hosting patient information, so it is important to find a provider with a strong data infrastructure. Beyond being in a secure and accessible location, the data should also include layered security, secure network connections, third-party compliance auditing, and other value-added security amenities that ensure confidentiality, uptime, and availability.

Security Practices

An effective HIPAA observability platform takes a “security first” approach, including effective safeguards, access controls, and intrusion prevention. Your chosen partner should perform regular internal risk assessments to discover vulnerabilities that may challenge the integrity of protected health data, plus have a team of security experts trained in HIPAA compliance. These professionals are responsible for dealing with new compliance requirements, handling crisis management, and addressing data privacy issues and IT failures.

Service Level Agreements

An SLA differs from a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) in that it outlines all operational aspects of the partnership, specifying such metrics as response time, disaster recovery, and uptime. Clients use SLAs to set performance expectations for the observation platform and to measure performance.

Breach/Incident Management Procedures

Even with the most stringent regulations in place, data breaches are still bound to occur. Organizations should choose an observability platform with a comprehensive incident response plan. Security incidents for PHI systems typically have a large footprint, so it is important to have effective communication and escalation plans in the case of a data compromise. 

Advanced Analytics Capabilities

Beyond checking an application’s behavior, effective observability platforms track user tasks and user experience while using the PHI application. These platforms have become an integral part of modern data pipelines, enabling teams to understand the state of data and data systems, as well as optimizing data-driven applications through analytics.

Popular HIPAA-Compliant Observability Platforms

Some popular solutions for implementing observability in HIPAA-compliant environments include those discussed below. 

Epsagon

Epsagon is a HIPAA-compliant application monitoring solution built for serverless and microservice-based architectures that analyzes request flows to solve exceptions and performance bottlenecks in distributed systems. The platform uses automated tracing to inject observability into all application-level calls. While ensuring the privacy of its subscribers, Espagon ensures the protection of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Protected Health Information (PHI) through HIPAA and GDPR compliance. To ensure products and processes are focused on the integrity of personal and health records, Epsagon continuously monitors the changing guidelines around HIPAA compliance and updates its services as required.

Epsagon Trace View

Tigera

A cloud-native security-as-code platform for securing VMs, hosts, containers, and Kubernetes applications, Tigera enriches observability metrics within a Kubernetes context to give a live view of interactions between different application components.

Sumo Logic

A stack of cloud log management and monitoring tools that delivers instantaneous observability for SaaS and web apps, Sumo Logic uses machine learning and continuous intelligence to enable proactive and predictive issue identification and resolution.

Summary

PHI and PII systems continue to be the target of ransomware attacks and breaches due to the value of the information they process. To mitigate such incidents, an efficient observability mechanism sits at their core. Besides security, observability is also critical for HIPAA applications, as it helps via the enforcement of regulatory compliance and recurring audits. By exposing platform utilization and user behavior in real-time, effective observability implementation unarguably forms the foundation of reliable HIPAA-compliant environments. 

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