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How to handle HIPAA violations in emails

How to handle HIPAA violations in emails

In case of a HIPAA violation via email, stop the spread immediately and report it internally. If needed, externally report the incident to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), notify affected individuals transparently, take corrective action, seek legal guidance, and continuously improve compliance protocols for better safeguards.


Understanding HIPAA compliant email communication

  • Encryption: Employing encryption protocols ensures that any email carrying protected health information (PHI) is safeguarded against unauthorized access, rendering the information indecipherable to unintended recipients.
  • Secure access: Implementing stringent access controls involves robust passwords and multi-factor authentication, restricting access solely to authorized personnel.
  • Patient consent: Obtain explicit consent from patients before transmitting sensitive health information via email. It fosters transparency and respects patient autonomy in managing their data.
  • Secure platforms: Using HIPAA compliant email platforms bolsters the email system's security layers, adding an additional shield against potential breaches.

However, various actions can inadvertently lead to violations:

  • Sending unencrypted emails containing sensitive patient data can expose information to unauthorized individuals.
  • Allowing unauthorized access to patient information, whether through compromised passwords or inadequate access controls, constitutes a breach.
  • Transmitting sensitive information without explicit patient consent violates their privacy rights and contravenes HIPAA regulations.
  • Using non-secure platforms for transmitting PHI exposes the information to vulnerabilities, potentially leading to breaches.

Related: Understanding HIPAA violations and breaches 


Immediate actions upon discovery

  • Stopping the spread: Immediately recall or retract the email if possible. Assessing the breach's extent aids in devising an effective response strategy.
  • Reporting and internal procedures: Promptly notify the designated HIPAA compliance officer or supervisor for internal reporting. That will allow you to understand the criteria for external reporting to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR)

Mitigation and damage control

  • Patient notification: Transparently inform affected individuals about the breach and detail the steps to mitigate potential harm. This communication should be clear, concise, and empathetic.
  • Corrective actions: Implement corrective measures, such as comprehensive staff retraining and robust policy updates, to fortify the system against future breaches. Review and update technological safeguards and protocols to significantly contribute to bolstering security.

Seeking legal guidance and expert consultation

Engaging healthcare attorneys or HIPAA compliance experts assists in navigating the legal intricacies and minimizing risks associated with the breach. Their expertise in interpreting HIPAA regulations and advising on compliance measures is invaluable.


Best practices and preventive measures

Emphasizing transparency, open communication, continuous improvement, and robust compliance protocols are integral in maintaining patient privacy and preventing future breaches. These practices solidify the commitment to patient confidentiality and data security in healthcare.

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