Given the complexity of the law and the volume of paperwork involved, it’s fairly common for healthcare providers to make mistakes that lead to accidental HIPAA violations. These incidents happen more often than you think. In fact, in 2020, the Office of Civil Rights received 66,509 notifications of small breaches, most of which were unintentional, affecting under 500 individuals.
Although accidental HIPAA violations aren’t an uncommon occurrence, it doesn’t mean that you can just be complacent with how you handle protected health information. As the main custodian of these highly sensitive documents, you need to ensure that they are safeguarded.
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Accidental HIPAA Violation: What You Need to Know
HIPAA is a federal law enacted in 1996 designed to protect the privacy and security of every individual’s health information. It’s multifaceted and involves several guidelines and regulations. All healthcare organizations and other covered entities must strictly comply with all its provisions. However, due to the law’s intricacy, accidental HIPAA violations sometimes happen.
Accidental HIPAA violations, as the name suggests, refer to incidents wherein a person or organization unintentionally discloses a patient’s protected health information (PHI). PHI includes any information that can be used to identify an individual’s health status or treatment, such as medical records, test results, and prescriptions.
No matter how minor these violations are, they always come with corresponding consequences. In most cases, any organization found to be guilty of accidental HIPAA violations gets fined. In more extreme cases where it affects many individuals, the organization may face countless lawsuits and even revocation of licenses.
But accidents just happen sometimes. And despite your best efforts to prevent such incidents from happening, accidental HIPAA violations can still occur due to various circumstances. The best way to deal with it is to notify the governing body of HIPAA and report any type of breaches. That said, you need to come up with a good contingency plan so you can take action right away.
5 Common Accidental HIPAA Violations
As mentioned, accidental HIPAA violations occur more often than you think. Even those that are well-equipped and careful can still sometimes fall prey to committing such infractions. One way to avoid them is to learn from other organizations’ mistakes. That said, here are some of the most commonly done mistakes that result in HIPAA violations:
1. Unauthorized disclosure
One of the most common cases of accidental HIPAA violations happens when an employee or organization unintentionally discloses a patient’s PHI without any form of authorization or consent. For instance, sending an individual’s medical records to the wrong address or number. Leaving confidential documents out in the open for everyone to see can also be considered a HIPAA violation.
2. Lost or stolen devices
Losing devices that contain PHI, whether due to negligence or theft, can result in committing accidental HIPAA violations. These devices can include laptops, smartphones, USB or hard drives, to name a few.
3. Improper disposal
HIPAA requires all organizations to develop a solid document retention plan, along with the right disposal of PHI. Despite this guideline, there are still some organizations that fail to dispose of their files properly. For instance, instead of shredding the documents, a covered entity would just throw them away directly.
4. Hacking and cybersecurity breaches
In today’s highly digital age, everyone is under the threat of cyberattacks. Even with robust security measures in place, some cybercriminals would still find a way to steal your most valuable data. For example, a healthcare organization might suffer a data breach due to a phishing scam that fooled an employee into giving up their login credentials.
5. Lack of HIPAA training
Most cases of accidental HIPAA violations are caused by human errors. Employees with no proper HIPAA training are more likely to make these unintentional mistakes. One example of this is when an employee inadvertently discloses a patient’s PHI during a conversation with someone who does not have a need to know the information.
How to Prevent Accidental HIPAA Violations: Tips and Best Practices
Educating your team, especially those that regularly handle PHI, about the fundamentals of HIPAA can significantly reduce the risk of experiencing accidental HIPAA violations. Invest the time and energy to provide HIPAA training to your employees. This equips them with everything there is to know about safeguarding highly sensitive information.
Conduct risk assessments
Prevention is always key to keeping serious compliance issues at bay. You need to make it a habit to regularly assess your organization’s security risks. This can help you identify potential vulnerabilities that could lead to accidental HIPAA violations. With this, you can take appropriate measures to ensure that you mitigate these risks to prevent them from escalating.
Whether you’re still using paper-based methods or you’ve switched to digital solutions, it’s important that you put in place various safeguards to protect PHI. For example, you can move your document storage facility into a place where there is less foot traffic. For electronic health records (EHR), make sure that you use strong passwords and encrypt your data.
Develop Policies and Procedures
Although HIPAA already has a set of guidelines you can follow, it also helps that you create internal policies and procedures that outline how to handle PHI. This can include how to report and respond to potential breaches. This makes it much easier for your team to know exactly what to do and what not to do.
Use HIPAA-compliant software
As we are swiftly moving into a digital landscape, it is integral that you pick online tools and software that aren’t just easy to use but also comply with HIPAA’s rules and regulations. When shopping around, make sure that the software uses robust security features to meet HIPAA standards.
One of the easiest ways you can prevent accidental HIPAA violations is to limit access to PHI to a few core individuals in your organization. Only those who really need to handle certain medical information should be given access. Even with a few people involved, you still need to closely monitor who access what. This encourages accountability.
When creating your policies and procedure for handling PHI, don’t forget to include a detailed guideline on how to properly dispose of any materials that contain confidential patient information. As mentioned earlier, one of the most common cases of accidental HIPAA violations happens when you fail to destroy PHI before disposing of them.
Prepare for breaches
No matter how much you prepare your team and equip your organization with the right tools, there are forces outside your control that can cause unintentional breaches. Again, these things happen. The best way to deal with issues is to be prepared. You need to know what to do and how to respond when you discover violations.
Review and update policies
Just as you’d conduct a risk assessment, you also need to regularly revisit and review your policies. This helps you make sure that you are up-to-date with HIPAA’s ever-changing regulations. It also allows you to assess the effectiveness of your procedures and gives you an opportunity to change them should they need to.
Final Word: Navigating Accidental HIPAA Violations
Healthcare is a highly regulated industry that has dozens of laws and guidelines to keep in mind. As much as you want to keep your organization free from any violations, accidental disclosures and breaches happen. The best thing you can do is to respond to them quickly to prevent things from escalating.
Of course, it also helps if you nip things in the bud. You need to identify the possible root causes of the violations. Take a look at your processes and assess which aspects need reinforcement and improvement. This and investing in tools that have robust security features can help prevent serious issues from arising.