Preventing HIPAA violations: A guide for employees

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In 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to protect the privacy of patients. From there on, HIPAA required any organization in or associated with the health industry to formulate and maintain policies to safeguard the confidentiality of personal health information.

The repercussions of failing to prevent HIPAA violations persist even as health records are increasingly digitized, and with good reason. A startling ninety-five percent of identity theft cases can be traced to stolen health records. Between 2017 and August 2023, there has been an increasing trend in the number of data breaches every year. The most recent breaches of organizations such as HCA Healthcare, MCNA Dental, and PharMerica alone have affected tens of millions of individuals. 

While preventing HIPAA violations is a responsibility for any organization as whole, there are ways you, as an employee, can contribute to their prevention.

What constitutes a HIPAA violation?

There are many ways a HIPAA violation can occur. Sharing patient photos — even with the patient’s permission — or details of a patient’s case on social media can be a violation. Discussing a patient’s information or the details of their record in too public of a setting such as a hallway, an elevator, or the cafeteria can also be a HIPAA violation. Then there is, of course, technology, whether it’s a case of human error — such as accessing patient data on a personal device — or a case of malice.     

However it happens, the consequences of a HIPAA violation can be severe. Fines for an individual range between $100 and $50,000, while the costs of more severe violations and settlements involving whole organizations reach into the millions. 

Read more: Your 2023 HIPAA compliance checklist

How can you prevent HIPAA violations?

There are six steps you as an employee can take to prevent HIPAA violations from occurring:

1. Education and awareness

Educate yourself and encourage your teammates to learn about HIPAA regulations as well as any recent changes to HIPAA rules. Improving your awareness of the regulations, potential violations and threats, is one of the most vital — and cost-effective for your organization — measures you can take to prevent HIPAA violations. As you learn about HIPAA regulations and violations, make sure you:

  • Understand the penalties for noncompliance
  • Participate (or even request) in in-office training sessions that offer comprehensive information on HIPAA privacy and security regulations  

2. Secure mobile devices

Mobile devices are a common source of HIPAA violations, either due to employees accessing patient information when they shouldn’t or because mobile devices provide an avenue of attack for cybercriminals. You should: 

  • Keep your mobile devices secure, within your control, and their security systems up to date
  • Remember to shut down and lock up your devices when not in use
  • Enable encryption, firewalls, and secure user authentication on all devices. Consider remote locking and wiping capabilities as a backup plan.

3. File and access management

Accurate file and access management are crucial for both paper and electronic records. Mistakes such as misfiling or saving files in the wrong locations with the wrong access permissions can lead to violations, either because of potential harm to patients or the possible exposure of patient information. Remember to:

  • Focus on your tasks and double-check that you store files in the correct folders and drives. 
  • Maintain caution when using technology for sharing information.
  • Do not share or reuse login credentials or passwords.

4. Proper document disposal

Improper disposal of paper files can lead to violations, as documents in the trash are easy pickings for criminals. Make sure you shred sensitive documents before discarding them. Also, as much as possible within your organization, transition to electronic filing systems for added security.

5. Patient information handling

Ensure that patient information is not visible to unauthorized individuals. You will need to:

  • Keep patient folders closed and avoid displaying appointment calendars in patient areas.
  • Conceal computer monitors and mobile device screens from patients and visitors.
  • Always double-check authorization requirements before disclosing patient information.
  • Be cautious about where you discuss patient information and control your environment to minimize risks.

6. Responsible social media usage

It is important that employees practice responsible social media usage. Careless social media posts can result in severe consequences for both employees and the organization. Make sure you:

  • Do not post any workplace-related content on social media or personal blogs. 
  • Maintain a disconnect between yourself and current patients on social media, and set your profiles to private. 
  • Politely decline friend or follow requests from patients or fellow caregivers, citing employer policies, if necessary.

By educating yourself on HIPAA regulations, abiding by security measures, and promoting responsible behavior in yourself and your coworkers, you can help to significantly reduce the risk of HIPAA violations within your organization.
Want to learn more about HIPAA violations and how to better comply with HIPAA regulations? Contact Refresh Technologies today.