Clinical Corner: Clinical Corner: COWs, and WOWs, and HIPAA! Oh My!

Clinical Corner

by Joe Bryowsky RN, CCRN Clinical Manager

Many hospitals are increasingly using COWs (computers on wheels) or WOWs (workstations on wheels) these days. (By the way, I’m told that use of the name COWs is considered politically incorrect these days, but we still call them that at the hospital I currently work at. Therefore I apologize in advance to any PCs out there on a wheeled work station that may take offense to this. J, but I digress … )

This is good for nurses in that we can spend less time (and energy) running back and forth to the nurses’ station to chart, and more time taking excellent care of our patients. There is a potential downside to this convenience, though. Having COWs or WOWs either in patient’s rooms or in the hallways also opens up a huge potential for theft of information as well as HIPAA violations. This can manifest in many different ways such as not logging off or “locking” the computer when leaving the area, people walking by, etc.

So how can we protect patient information as well as ourselves from this threat? Below are some very simple steps to follow:

  • Create a strong password. (Check out our helpful hints for creating a strong password below.)
  • Do not share your password with anyone and always be aware if anybody is around you when keying in your password.
  • When using a COW or WOW, position yourself or the computer so the information is difficult to see, and minimize screens detailing a patient information system if someone walks up to you.
  • ALWAYS log off or lock your computer whenever leaving the computer even if only for a short time.

Using these methods will reduce the risk of information theft as well as the potential for HIPAA violations.

Helpful hints for strong passwords

“Strong” passwords are hard to guess … either by human or machine. Creating a strong password requires doing the following:

  • Do make them long, at least 8 characters, ideally longer
  • Do use at least four different characters (don’t just repeat the same ones)
  • Do include mixes of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, symbols like !@#&, and numbers.
  • Do change your passwords regularly (some systems force the user to do this)
  • Do use different passwords for different systems (ex. PYXIS vs COW password)

Creating strong passwords require NOT doing certain things too:

  • Don’t use words associated with personal characteristics that others may know (family names, pet names, addresses, etc.)
  • Don’t use consecutive letters or numbers (ex. 1234567 or abcdefg)
  • Don’t use your name or nickname
  • Don’t use adjacent characters on your keyboard. (ex. zxcvbnm)
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