Sending a fax to the wrong recipients can severely affect a healthcare organization. Disclosing patient details without permission potentially violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which may lead to financial, legal, and reputational repercussions.
A HIPAA breach occurs when you acquire, access, use, or disclose protected health information (PHI), compromising the security and privacy of your patients. Sending PHI via fax to wrong numbers is a potential HIPAA breach since you’re divulging private and sensitive information without the patient’s approval. Doing so may cause embarrassment, financial loss, emotional distress, and discrimination to your patients.
Know the consequences and the steps you can take when this mistake happens.
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Consequences of Faxing PHI to a Wrong Number
Secure messaging in healthcare is a must to protect patient welfare and avoid stiff fines for HIPAA violations. In instances of a HIPAA breach, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigates the incident and determines appropriate penalties. The HIPAA Journal shows that the penalties depend on culpability:
- Tier 1—lack of knowledge: $127 – $63,973 per violation
- Tier 2—reasonable cause: $1,280 – $63,973 per violation
- Tier 3—willful neglect, corrected within 30 days: $12,794 – $63,973 per violation
- Tier 4—willful neglect, not corrected within 30 days: $63,973 – $1,919,173 per violation
In 2017, the OCR fined St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center Inc. $387,200 as a settlement for HIPAA violations. According to the OCR, staff was faxing PHI to a wrong number instead of sending it to a personal post office box, which the patient requested. The OCR discovered related HIPAA breaches nine months before the issue, but the hospital failed to correct them.
HIPAA breaches can lead to reputational damage. Patients trust healthcare providers with their most private and sensitive information. When you violate that trust, it erodes confidence in the organization’s ability to protect patient data.
News of a breach spreads quickly and can tarnish your organization’s image. Patients may seek care elsewhere, file lawsuits, and create negative publicity. For instance, Businesswire reports that Quest Diagnostics faced a class action lawsuit in 2015 for sending a fax to the wrong recipient. NBC New York soon picked up the story for anyone to find online.
A fax to the wrong number can expose healthcare organizations to financial consequences. Besides the fines imposed by regulatory bodies, organizations may incur expenses related to breach notification, investigation, legal fees, and remediation efforts.
According to IBM statistics, the healthcare industry’s average data breach cost is a staggering $10.10 million. These expenses can strain budgets and affect your organization’s ability to provide quality care. As the HIPAA Journal argues, HIPAA certification is worth the cost if you compare it to the cost of non-compliance.
How to Handle a HIPAA Breach
When your healthcare organization realizes it has sent HIPAA fax to the wrong number, it is crucial to take immediate action to mitigate further harm. Here are the recommended steps you can take:
Steps to take after sending a fax to the wrong number
1. Notify patients
Inform the affected patients about the compromised information and its associated risks. You should also guide patients on any actions they can take to protect themselves.
2. Report the breach
Promptly reporting the incident to the OCR shows that your organization is committed to rectifying the situation and making amends with the patients involved. Ignoring the issue will only result in stiffer penalties and reputational damage. Check the HHS website to know how to submit a notice of a breach, which depends on how many individuals were affected.
3. Review Data Privacy Policies
Conduct a thorough review of existing policies to implement safeguards and avoid sending a HIPAA fax to the incorrect number. Consider training your staff on HIPAA compliance to make them aware of the consequences of non-compliance.
Importance of HIPAA Compliance Training
HIPAA training is vital to prevent HIPAA violations such as sending a fax to wrong numbers. Training programs provide staff with the knowledge and skills to handle sensitive information appropriately, reducing the risk of breaches.
Numerous HIPAA compliance training programs are available, tailored to the needs of your healthcare organization. These programs cover data protection, security threats, and secure faxing practices.
Secure Patient PHI With HIPAA Training and Faxing
Sending a fax to the wrong number can severely affect healthcare organizations. A HIPAA breach’s legal, reputational, and financial fallout can harm your organization’s operations and relationship with patients. Taking steps to avoid and handle violations promptly is crucial.
Moreover, investing in HIPAA compliance training programs and HIPAA-compliant electronic faxing solutions such as iFax is essential to prevent breaches and protect patient privacy effectively. By prioritizing HIPAA compliance, your healthcare organization can minimize the risks of sending a fax to wrong numbers and safeguard patient information.