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Ensuring authorized disclosure and secure encryption is vital for safeguarding protected health information (PHI) and maintaining HIPAA compliance. Failure to meet these requirements poses a risk of HIPAA violation.


HIPAA compliance in email communication

The Privacy Rule, a cornerstone of HIPAA regulations, enables healthcare providers to effectively communicate with patients using electronic methods, including email. This provision ensures that patient information is handled with utmost care and prevents unauthorized distribution of sensitive data. 

Recognizing the inherent risks associated with electronic communication, both the Privacy Rule and its companion legislation, the Security Rule, establish stringent safeguards to govern the secure transmission and protection of electronic health information. The Security Rule, in particular, contains the comprehensive requirements for compliance, encompassing administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to mitigate the potential for HIPAA violations and safeguard patient privacy. 

By adhering to these regulations, healthcare providers can maintain the confidentiality and integrity of electronic communications while ensuring the privacy rights of their patients are upheld.


Common HIPAA violations

1. Unauthorized disclosure of PHI via email without consent

The Notice of Privacy Practices is a crucial document that patients sign to provide explicit consent for healthcare providers or services to use or disclose their protected health information. Any utilization or disclosure of PHI without this authorized consent is considered an unauthorized disclosure. For instance, sending patient information through email to an unintended recipient or neglecting to protect the recipient list when sending marketing-related emails could lead to the unintentional disclosure of the healthcare provider's patient list.


2. Transmitting PHI without email encryption

This refers to the failure to implement appropriate encryption measures for emails at rest and in transit or neglecting to provide equivalent safeguards for PHI. Encryption plays a vital role in ensuring the confidentiality and security of sensitive patient data during storage and transmission, mitigating the risk of unauthorized access or disclosure. Failure to prioritize encryption in email communication leaves PHI vulnerable to potential breaches and compromises its integrity. Healthcare organizations must use HIPAA compliant email protocols to safeguard PHI.


3. Lack of access control

The safeguard principles within the privacy and security framework ensure comprehensive protection of PHI. One significant risk is unauthorized access, which can be mitigated by healthcare providers strictly granting access rights in accordance with HIPAA's Access Control provisions

Implementing a combination of physical measures (e.g., secure room access with locks), technical safeguards (e.g., security software), and administrative protocols (e.g., well-trained staff) collectively fortifies the security infrastructure and reinforces HIPAA compliance.

Related: The role of employee education in email security for healthcare organizations


4. Improper disposal of electronic PHI

PHI encompasses patients' personal data and associated identifiers. When healthcare providers no longer require the information, ensure appropriate disposal of PHI, especially in the case of sensitive data such as patient contact details and names. 

The Security Rule imposes an obligation on healthcare providers and covered entities to establish comprehensive policies and procedures for the disposal of electronic PHI (ePHI) and the corresponding hardware. While the Privacy and Security Rules allow some flexibility in designing specific disposal procedures, methods such as media sanitization are effective. Media sanitization involves:

  • Clearing the data from software or hardware: This process securely erases sensitive information from software or hardware, making it inaccessible to unauthorized individuals.
  • Purging the data by exposing it to strong magnetic fields: By subjecting the data storage media to powerful magnetic fields, all stored data is effectively erased, rendering it irretrievable.
  • Destroying data by physically damaging the related hardware: This method involves physically harming the hardware, such as pulverizing or shredding it, to ensure the complete destruction of the stored data.

Implementing these disposal methods ensures the thorough and secure elimination of PHI, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or distribution.


Mitigating risk

Violating HIPAA can result in significant consequences, encompassing both civil and criminal punishment.

  • Avoid insufficient encryption by implementing state-of-the-art cybersecurity and HITRUST certified encryption services like Paubox.
  • Train staff to follow HIPAA protocols.
  • Correctly dispose of ePHI by deleting related PHI in a method that allows no further distribution, such as media sanitization. Putting in place stringent staff training to avoid any accidental or negligent unauthorized disclosures of PHI

In the event of a violation or breach, have a dedicated compliance team or engage the services of a reputable third-party provider with expertise in guiding and navigating the necessary steps to address and rectify the situation following HIPAA guidelines. 


Avoiding risk 

By prioritizing proactive measures and preparedness, healthcare providers can safeguard patient privacy, maintain regulatory compliance, and minimize the potential legal and reputational ramifications of HIPAA violations.

RelatedPreparing for an OCR HIPAA compliance audit

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