The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has been in effect for more than 20 years and remains one of the most important regulatory laws that define the medical field. Unfortunately, the occurrence and frequency of HIPAA violations are still very much a reality in the healthcare industry as it stands today.
Over 4,400 healthcare data breaches have been reported between 2009 and 2021. These resulted in the loss, theft, exposure, or illegal disclosure of more than 314 million healthcare records. In 2021, an average of 1.95 data breaches of 500 or more records were reported daily in the US.
These data breaches lead to patients’ identity theft, which is then often used for financial gain and disclosure of protected health information that can cause harm to patients. Oftentimes, health providers are to blame and are penalized for these incidents.
HIPAA violations happen due to several factors that not only involve human error but also due to inefficient processes, ineffective systems, and technology-related issues. Here are five of the most common HIPAA violations and how health providers can better avoid them.
Failing to Secure and Encrypt Data
Data encryption has become a vital method to secure information across industries. This allows plain text to be converted into ciphertext and only allows anyone to decrypt it through an encryption key.
One of the most common of all HIPAA violations is the failure to encrypt data properly to secure it. In part, this is because there are so many different ways for this to happen.
The healthcare industry is among the top producers of data globally. According to estimates, a single patient generates nearly 80 megabytes of data each year, and this can cause challenges in encrypting all data produced by patients on a daily.
Hospitals are also often fast-paced. Sometimes, healthcare workers can accidentally leave physical charts and files in exam rooms where later patients can see them or leave files on desktops or computer screens while they step away. This can cause data breaches and theft.
A fully digital data processing system can help healthcare providers collect, store and encrypt patient data faster and more effectively. It allows for more efficient management and can help automate encryption and security. Encryption must also be integrated into the revenue cycle and medical billing management to ensure that patients’ medical and financial records are safe, as these are often the key targets for data theft.
When providers think of HIPAA violation examples, device theft rarely comes to mind. But with the rising cases of identity theft, mobile devices have also been the target of perpetrators. This is because these devices contain significant information that they can use to steal patient data or connect to the institution’s system to access protected information.
Lost or stolen devices are a huge source of HIPAA enforcement investigations and penalties. To secure these devices, institutions must work with their manufacturers to ensure everything being used to collect and process patients’ information is secured from the inside and the outside. Anti-theft software and tracking features can also help institutions track all the devices they use, and get notifications if a device is used outside the premises or has been used by unauthorized personnel.
Employee misconduct in the healthcare sector can lead to failure to secure data. It can happen in many different ways and is often accidental. Often the lack of familiarization with HIPPA leads to unconscious human errors and misconduct that leads to the unauthorized sharing of patient data.
Employee misconduct can be as simple as answering questions from patients’ friends or the family in ways that violate privacy. Posting photos as well as other personally identifiable information to social media that exposes patients is also regarded as misconduct as it puts the patient’s identity, privacy, and security on the line.
Proper dissemination of HIPAA rules and setting and implementing internal rules that will guard a patient’s privacy in the hospital can help avoid this. Active monitoring of employee practices and conduct can also help you identify errors and malpractices as they occur. Encourage people to watch over one another, educate each other, and report misconduct promptly so it can be rectified as needed.
Improper Records Disposal
It is normal for healthcare institutions to dispose of patient records that are no longer in use. But doing so is a sensitive process, as it will require staff to classify information before deciding how to act on it.
Disposing of records improperly can lead to data breaches. Some hospital documents may be casually discarded. But sometimes, documents that may contain protected health information (PHI) can get mixed up with miscellaneous waste. This easily happens for institutions that are still using manual processes to record and store data.
It is ideal to adopt digital approaches to securely record, sort, classify and dispose of documents and data that may not be of use anymore. Physical documents can also be digitized first then, so PHI will not be lost and can be disposed of properly when needed. This makes the process easier and more secure.
Inadequate Staff Training
Given that staff training prevents nearly every other item on this list, it will be no surprise that inadequate training is one of the most common HIPAA violations. Staff members’ lack of knowledge and know-how about HIPAA and the healthcare institutions’ rules and regulations surrounding patients’ privacy and security often leads to errors, misconduct, and data breaches.
Avoiding human error in healthcare is a must to minimize HIPAA violations. It is important to conduct regular training to keep all staff — from medical practitioners to admin staff — regarding HIPAA and other laws that concern patients. Having internal audits to assess HIPAA compliance is also ideal for helping you gauge your staff’s knowledge and preparedness.
Technical and non-technical fail-safes should also be implemented to secure data from unauthorized personnel. There should be ways that the right person will be notified should there be attempts to access PHI without authorization.
Misconduct and bad habits must also be reported and corrected promptly. Provide staff with a platform where they can self-report misconduct and errors, as well as possible security risks that they may have perceived. Automate compliance and make the reporting processes easy to encourage staff to engage further.
Prevent HIPAA Violations Proactively
HIPAA violations put sensitive and private information at risk, costing patients not just monetary value but their identity and dignity. For healthcare institutions, non-compliance with HIPAA can cause a major blow to their business and integrity.
It is important to take proactive steps to ensure compliance with HIPAA. Keep everything — from the personnel to the technologies — within the institutions to be secure and ready to handle patient information safely. Put proper systems in place to secure patient data and ensure all staff members have the knowledge and training to avoid HIPAA violations and deliver the best kind of care to all patients.