HIPAA vs. ISO 27001: What’s the Difference?

October 21, 2022

Close the search tab – we’ve got it from here. If your organization is required by law to comply with HIPAA regulations, there certainly isn’t much (any) room for debating the importance of compliance. However, many organizations are now starting to take advantage of additional frameworks, or simply, do not know if they should be leveraging another security framework, such as ISO 27001 compliance. 

Unfortunately, the road to compliance is often difficult to navigate. We get it – which is why we don’t want to jump the gun. Here’s what you need to know about HIPAA and ISO 27001 and how the two differ (and work well together). 


Book a Demo

HIPAA and ISO 27001 ground rules

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we should get the ground rules out of the way. Firstly, buckle up and prepare your eyeballs for some acronyms. In the world of compliance, acronyms are cool – we don’t make the rules. 

Secondly, there’s no way to sugarcoat a federal law. If you’re a Covered Entity (CE) or Business Associate (BA) and deal with Protected Health Information (PHI) – HIPAA is a pretty (very) big deal. Not just in our opinion but according to legislation. 

So, how does the relationship between HIPAA and IS0 27001 work? Let’s unpack. 

In this blog post, we’ll guide you through the key distinctions between HIPAA and ISO 27001, shedding light on how they coexist and complement each other in the realm of regulatory compliance and information security.

What is HIPAA compliance? 

HIPAA can be perfectly summarized in three little words: Protected Health Information (PHI). PHI refers to any and all individually identifiable information related to a person’s health. This includes past, present, and future information about healthcare or payment. It’s the crux of every rule, requirement, control, fine, and law. It’s invincible, or at least it’s supposed to be.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is the bedrock for both regulatory compliance and healthcare cybersecurity to ensure that PHI stays protected. However (and no, we won’t ever get tired of saying it) – it’s not a simple optional security framework; it’s protected by federal law. 

Who should be HIPAA compliant?

HIPAA compliance is governed by one core principle: The Privacy Rule. The Privacy Rule dictates who is legally obligated to comply with HIPAA regulations. The additional three rules (The Security, Breach Notification, and Omnibus Rule) all work towards better meeting the standards required by The Privacy Rule. 

According to The Privacy Rule, there are two types of organizations that are subject to HIPAA compliance – Covered Entities (CE) and Business Associates (BA). But be forewarned, this isn’t limited to organizations in the healthcare industry. Business Associates have entered the HIPAA huddle, which includes any third party that has a link to a Covered Entity. 

If you need a quick segway on whether or not your organization needs HIPAA compliance, here’s everything you need to know about the WHO and the WHY of HIPAA compliance. 

The process of HIPAA compliance involves rigorous self-assessments, governed by The Office for Civil Rights. Organizations must adhere to The Privacy Rule and other associated regulations, ensuring unwavering commitment to compliance. The responsibility of HIPAA compliance is absolute, leaving no room for lukewarm adherence to the law.

The process of HIPAA compliance

It should be noted that a governing body (The Office for Civil Rights) enforces steep penalties and fines in case of a HIPAA violation. The OCR is also responsible for any routine guidance and investigating any potential data breaches. But, as HIPAA is a law, it’s not certifiable. 

However, The Security Rule does include an evaluation standard for an organization’s information security controls and security safeguards. Sound familiar? We’ll get into how that sounds a whole lot like what ISO 27001 does in a bit. 

It’s important to note that an organization is either 100% compliant or not at all, and the responsibility of HIPAA compliance rests with each organization and is an ongoing process with HIPAA self-assessments. In the same sense that you either abide by the law or don’t – there is no lukewarm compliance. 

To ensure consistent compliance, organizations must do routine self-assessments, which will be their core indicator of compliance. External audits only occur if there is suspicion of a violation or an actual breach. 

Now, why are we throwing ISO 27001 in the mix?

What is ISO 27001 compliance? 

Right off the bat, the most important thing to understand about ISO 27001 is that it is a certification, which in the world of compliance isn’t always the case. If businesses pass the exacting ISO 27001 requirements, they are ISO 27001 certified. Unlike ISO 27001, HIPAA does not award or grant certificates for being a law-abiding organization,  which is fair enough. 

So, what exactly does the ISO 27001 certification entail, and what does it mean for your organization to have one? 

There are three core elements of information security that ISO 27001 protects: 

  1. Confidentiality
  2. Integrity
  3. Availability

ISO 27001 is an information security management framework that applies to various organizations. The primary focus of an ISO 27001 security framework is to define, implement, control, and improve overall information security. This somewhat overlaps with HIPAA’s Security Rule. 

The ISO 27001 Bible

Everything you need to know about compliance!

Download the Whitepaper

Who needs to be ISO 27001 compliant? 

Essentially, when it comes to providing evidence that your organization has implemented the needed data security measures, talk is cheap. That’s why many companies request organizations to attain an ISO 27001 certification before going into business – ensuring that they’ve implemented an internationally recognized security standard, meeting all necessary requirements. 

The process of ISO 27001 certification

To become ISO 27001 means that your organization meets the global standard for information security and management. To reach this standard, an accredited certification body independently performs audits. This audit will test your organization’s Information Security Management System (ISMS) against the ISO 27001 standard and evaluate how you’ve implemented several critical controls and policies to meet these standards. 

This is generally a two-step audit process. Stage 1 focuses on a preliminary audit of internal controls and procedures. This stage highlights gaps, potential risks, and compliance issues that need to be addressed. Stage 2 is a formal audit where organizations become accredited if there is evidence of the correct policies, controls, and management. 

An ISO 27001 certification is valid for three years. For the first two years, companies will have to complete surveillance audits. In year three, they’ll complete a recertification audit. 

Need more information about ISO 27001? Read everything you need to know about ISO 27001 in under 27001 milliseconds.

What are the similarities between HIPAA compliance and ISO 27001 certification?

The best way to approach the similarities between the two frameworks is to appreciate their complementary value. Out of ISO 27001’s 114 security controls, about 40 of them comply with HIPAA. One example of this is that both frameworks require security awareness training on a regular basis. So, why is there an overlap between two frameworks that seem to have opposite core purposes? Well, this is where we need to dig into HIPAA’s Security Rule

The Security Rule addresses how organizations must protect all electronic PHI (e-PHI) and establishes set security requirements and controls that an organization must implement. An ISO 27001 certification can work towards bolstering an organization’s ability to meet the requirements of the Security Rule. However, ISO 27001 is merely a part of the HIPAA puzzle and does not grant HIPAA compliance.

Learning about HIPAA compliance versus ISO 27001 compliance

What are the differences between HIPAA compliance and ISO 27001 certification?

Although they share some overlap in terms of security rules, HIPAA’s other rules, such as The Breach Notification Rule and The Omnibus Rule, expect organizations to go far beyond technical, administrative, and physical safeguards.

Ultimately, the most significant difference between the two (apart from that law vs. choice element) is in regard to the purpose. ISO 2700 protects customer data by enabling organizations to protect their information systematically by adopting an Information Security Management System (ISMS). HIPAA protects PHI, and all rules and requirements are geared towards safeguarding it. 

Compliance in a nutshell 

If you’ve scanned over most of this blog and prefer a go-to guide to jog your memory – here are the key takeaways: 

HIPAA complianceISO 27001 certification
What is it?A federal law that specifies how protected health information may be used and disclosed legally (PHI).ISO 27001 is the global standard for effective information management.
Who needs it?All organizations that are subject to The Privacy Rule (Covered Entities and Business Associates). Any organization that wants to implement the highest standard of information security to bolster their business and protect client data. 
The purposeTo protect and regulate all identifiable personal health information. To protect client information and data through an Information Security Management System (ISMS).
The guiding principlesThe Privacy Rule, The Security Rule, The Breach Notification Rule, and The Omnibus Rule. Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability.
Core similarityThe Security Rule establishes requirements for the safe storage, processing, and transmission of electronic PHI. Security controls need to be implemented, ensuring the security of customer data and best information security practices.
Core differenceIs mandated by law to CEs and BAs in the USA or those that do business with American healthcare organizations. Is an optional security framework for all industries and is recognized internationally. 
How long does compliance last?HIPAA compliance is ongoing with regular self-audits and needs to be embedded in the security DNA of an organization. An ISO 27001 certification is valid for three years. For the first two years, companies will have to complete surveillance audits. In year three, they’ll complete a recertification audit. 

HIPAA, ISO 27001, and Scytale

Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on yourself and one blog to ensure that you’re HIPAA and/or ISO 27001 compliant. Automate compliance and mitigate the risk of human error with Scytale. Get in touch with our team to get your organization compliant 90% faster.