5 HIPAA Violation Examples and How to Avoid Them

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What Is HIPAA?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is like the traffic laws of healthcare. It is a federal law consisting of rules and standards that help protect the privacy and security of patient health information.

Just like you wouldn’t want someone peeking through your curtains at home, HIPAA ensures that patients’ protected health information (PHI) stays private and is only shared with those who need to know.

What Is a HIPAA Violation?

Failing to comply with HIPAA regulations is considered a violation. If you think getting a speeding ticket is bad, HIPAA violations can lead to some serious penalties, like hefty fines and potential jail time.

Fortunately, avoiding HIPAA violations is entirely doable. Just like you can avoid a speeding ticket by following the speed limit, you can steer clear of HIPAA violations by following best practices and staying on top of your practice.

5 HIPAA Violations and How to Avoid Them

Let’s unravel 5 HIPAA violation examples you definitely want to avoid and share some nifty tips to keep you on the straight and narrow.

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1. Peeking Into PHI Without Permission

Unauthorized access to PHI is one of the most common HIPAA violations. Imagine someone taking a sneak peek into your diary without asking. Unpleasant, right? That’s how patients feel when their confidential health data is accessed without proper authorization. 

Avoid This Violation By:  

  • Establish strong access controls to ensure only authorized individuals have access to the right PHI.
  • Regularly train all staff on the importance of patient privacy and PHI authorization standards.
  • Implement system alerts for unusual or unauthorized access patterns.

2. Neglecting to Implement Best Practices to Protect PHI

It’s not enough to have PHI on a system; it’s about protecting it with a shield of steel (or, in this case, top-tier security measures). Remember, you want to build trust and credibility with your patients. You can’t do that if their safety is not a top priority.

Avoid This Violation By:  

  • Use a HIPAA-compliant medical website and end-to-end encryption across all devices and platforms holding PHI.
  • Keep software and systems updated. Outdated systems are hackers’ playgrounds!
  • Hold regular HIPAA and cybersecurity training sessions to keep everyone informed about the regulations, latest threats, and safety protocols.

3. Disclosing PHI to Unauthorized Individuals 

Whether posting on social media, commenting on a medical forum, or discussing with a friend, sharing a patient’s PHI to anyone or anywhere unauthorized is a no-go. Even if it’s a humblebrag about how you helped a patient, it’s still a violation.

Avoid This Violation By:  

  • Educate all staff about what constitutes PHI and the pitfalls of oversharing.
  • Set strict guidelines on what can and can’t be disclosed outside the healthcare setting.
  • Use anonymized case studies if you need to discuss patient situations in educational or public settings.

4. Forgetting to Enter Into a BAA  

Business associate agreements (BAAs) are necessary contracts between covered entities and business associates (third-party vendors that handle PHI). They outline the business associate’s responsibilities regarding HIPAA regulations and PHI.

Avoid This Violation By:  

  • Always sign a BAA before sharing any PHI with third-party vendors.
  • Regularly review and update BAAs to ensure they reflect current operations and requirements.
  • Train staff on the importance of BAAs and how to properly set them up.

5. Failing to Notify Affected Individuals of a Data Breach

If there’s a breach, silence isn’t golden. It’s a violation. It is your duty to notify affected individuals in the event of a data breach.

Avoid This Violation By:  

  • Have a clear breach response plan in place. 
  • Notify affected parties, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the media (if the breach affected more than 500 residents of a State or jurisdiction) within 60 days of the breach, as stipulated by the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule.
  • Use the breach as a learning opportunity. Investigate, understand the root cause, and adapt your systems to avoid future incidents.

6 Tips to Help Avoid HIPAA Violations

Imagine your digital environment as a castle. There are certain tactics that should be put in place to protect PHI, sensitive data, and your patients. Here are 6 tips to help avoid HIPAA violations and fortify your walls.

1. Educate and Train Your Team

A strong defense system starts with a well-trained team. Make sure all team members know HIPAA rules inside and out. 

  • Keep Everyone Informed: HIPAA compliance training should review the law’s standards and include organization-specific examples of how to stay compliant and avoid HIPAA violations.
  • Regular Training: Host ongoing training sessions to keep everyone up to date with the latest regulations and best practices. You should also provide training whenever there are updates or changes to HIPAA and organization policies.

2. Control Access to PHI

Access controls act as the gatekeeper. It ensures that only those with a reason to enter can do so.

  • Limit Access: Set clear permissions and utilize tools like Active Directory to give the right people the right access.
  • Monitor Access: Regularly review and update these permissions to keep them tight and relevant. Use access logs and audits to track who’s accessing what and why. If something seems off, investigate it.

3. Encrypt, Encrypt, Encrypt

Encryption is like having secret passages in your castle that only you know about. It scrambles your data. So, if someone does manage to sneak in, all they’ll find are indecipherable symbols.

  • All Devices Must Be Secured: Use encryption tools on all devices that handle PHI to protect data on your devices and during transmission. 
  • Use Secure Communication Channels: Encrypted emails and secure messaging platforms, like HIPAA-compliant email for therapists, should be your go-to for communicating sensitive information. 

4. Use Strong Passwords

A strong password is like a unique key to your castle’s drawbridge. It enhances protection by acting as the first layer of defense to your data.

  • Encourage Complex Passwords: Create intricate passwords filled with random numbers, letters, and symbols. Use a different password for every account, device, and system. 
  • Take Advantage of Password Managers: With all of these complex passwords, it’s best to have a secure place to store them. Password managers use advanced encryption to protect and keep track of your passwords without writing them down.

5. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is the moat filled with alligators around your castle. It’s an extra layer of defense that requires additional proof of identity beyond just a password.

  • Use Multiple Verification Methods: This could be a combination of something you know (a password), something you have (a phone or token), or something you are (a fingerprint or facial recognition).
  • Enable MFA Everywhere: From devices and systems to scheduling software and email accounts, activate MFA wherever possible.

6. Conduct Regular Risk Assessments

Regular risk assessments are like analyzing your defense systems for weak points and sending out scouts to check for enemies.

  • Identify Vulnerabilities: Regularly assess your systems to find potential risks and fix them before they become a problem. This can include conducting penetration tests, reviewing current protection and security policies, and ensuring all systems are up to date.
  • Stay Up to Date With Technology: Keep abreast of the latest in cybersecurity to ensure you’re using the best tools and techniques.

Conclusion

HIPAA compliance is about protecting your patients. Remember, your digital castle needs vigilant gatekeepers, well-trained defenders, and impenetrable walls.

So, why not take a moment to review your current practices? Ensure that access controls are tight, encryption is robust, passwords are strong, multi-factor authentication is in place, and regular risk assessments are part of your routine.


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Author BioAlexandra Kalasky is the editor-in-chief at New Reach Marketing. She is an accomplished writer, editor, and content marketing strategist. Her passion for high-quality content and discovering ways to help others succeed has driven her career in the marketing industry. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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