7 Common HIPAA violations and how to avoid them

March 20, 2023
min read

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that requires healthcare providers and other covered entities to protect the privacy and security of patient health information.

HIPAA is a common topic in the medical field, but sometimes it can be difficult to track what it refers to and how to avoid violations. 

Complying with HIPAA rules requires constant effort and customization. When healthcare organizations and providers do not take the proper steps to understand and comply with HIPAA thoroughly, the risk of violating patient privacy increases.

7 common HIPAA violations

Ready to dive in? Here are seven common HIPAA violations and how to avoid them.

1. Accessing medical data without authorization

HIPAA violations do not only involve releasing private medical data. For instance, accessing patient information without authorization is considered a violation of patient privacy. 

Regardless if the individual is a medical practitioner, looking through health records for reasons other than treatment, payment, and healthcare operations violates HIPAA regulations. The same rule applies to accessing the healthcare information of loved ones, such as family and friends.

2. Accidentally releasing PHI to the wrong party

Everyone knows that accidents happen. Not all accidents will carry severe consequences, but releasing PHI to the wrong person is a HIPAA violation. It could be a fax sent to the wrong number or the release of an X-ray to an unauthorized family member. 

It is in best practice to always confirm the patient’s identity (e.g., name, date of birth, address) before releasing any information in person, online, or over the phone. 

Unintentional HIPAA violations must still be followed up appropriately. Healthcare organizations have specific procedures for reporting incorrectly released data and following up. 

3. Using unsecured communication platforms

Using unsecured messaging tools is another common HIPAA violation. Of course, digital healthcare communication is a necessity in today’s world. You want the ability to send information digitally, whether to patients or other providers. With new messaging and email platforms coming out every year, it can be hard to figure out which are HIPAA-compliant. 

There are a number of HIPAA-compliant chats available, such as Rocket.Chat, OhMD, RevenueWell, Trillian, and Luma Health.

common hipaa violations

4. Preventing patients from accessing their medical records

It is a direct violation of HIPAA rule to deny patients from accessing their medical records. This includes refusing to send patients copies of their records, overcharging for the copies, and failing to provide patients with their records within 30 days. Besides violating HIPAA, this can severely damage patient experience.

One of the most significant examples occurred with Cignet Health of Prince George’s County. Between September 2008 and October 2009, 41 patients requested their medical records but were never granted access. This violation is a $1.3 million fine. 

The patients filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), initiating an investigation. Cignet refused to provide the records per OCR’s demands, resulting in a $3 million violation for willful neglect. In the end, Cignet had to pay $4.3 million for failing to protect patients’ rights and comply with HIPAA regulations.

common hipaa violations

5. Posting PHI on social media

Social media is often used as an outlet to express feelings and opinions. It may seem like an easy way to vent about your day or share something funny, but you may be violating HIPAA rules in the process. 

Health care practitioners should never post or share any PHI on social media. This includes anything that can identify a person, such as text, images, and video.

In Rhode Island, a doctor was reprimanded for posting details about a trauma patient’s injuries. Although they didn’t name the patient explicitly, there were enough details for a third party to identify the patient. 

While unintentional, this is still considered a HIPAA violation. Medical professionals can also violate HIPAA regulations by responding to news reports or reviews with PHI. 

6. Not performing security risk assessments

Actively protecting patient data is crucial. When health care providers neglect to perform security risk assessments, the chances of unauthorized personnel accessing medical records increase significantly.

Healthcare data security breaches have been a prominent concern for over a decade. Between 2009 and 2022, there were 4,746 medical data breaches and over 342 million patient records illegally accessed or stolen. This number is predicted to increase in 2023, leading many to wonder how to protect patients’ health information. 

The impact of cyberattacks is substantial, affecting not only the patients’ privacy but also costing the organization millions. Microsoft security breach statistics highlighted that the average cost of a data breach in the US is $9.44 million. 

You can help prevent data breaches by regularly conducting security risk assessments. This includes identifying where PHI is stored and shared, checking for vulnerabilities within the system, and addressing the risks. 

7. Using unsecured devices

Using unsecured devices to download patient health information is a HIPAA violation, as it puts patient information at risk of being illegally accessed.

Unauthorized devices, such as personal laptops, smartphones, or USB drives, may not have the necessary security measures to protect PHI, such as encryption or password protection. This could lead to a data breach or cyberattack that could compromise patient privacy and violate HIPAA regulations.

Ensure your devices and software are HIPAA-compliant by limiting access, using end-to-end encryption, monitoring PHI-related activity, regularly backing up data, and storing data in a secure environment (e.g., physical location instead of cloud storage). 

Stay HIPAA-compliant with the right preventative measures

HIPAA compliance is a continuous journey that requires customization for each organization. While these are the most common, there are plenty of unintentional HIPAA violations that occur frequently. Thus, health care providers and organizations must stay diligent and actively ensure they are following all HIPAA regulations.

Some of the best ways to prevent HIPAA violations include properly understanding the scope of PHI, confirming patient identity, and refraining from disclosing PHI to unauthorized individuals. 

With the digitalization of patient records and medical information, cyberattacks have become a prevalent issue in the healthcare industry. To secure patient privacy while using technology, health care practitioners should implement authorized access control, regularly conduct security risk assessments and use HIPAA-compliant CRMs to ensure all devices and software are HIPAA-compliant. 

By following these preventive measures, health care providers and covered entities can protect patient privacy and avoid costly HIPAA violations. Reach out to our experts to see how Rocket.Chat can help you stay HIPAA-compliant.

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