The Rising Tide of Small Scale Privacy Breaches

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Original story posted on: March 9, 2017

Although small privacy breaches affecting less than 500 patients per incident are not usually broadcast as widely as large scale cyberattacks, they can be just as detrimental to healthcare organizations. These small breaches can be as simple as a patient’s protected health information (PHI) mistakenly going to the wrong person.

The financial impact of small breaches is real. According to the American National Standards Institute, each breach can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $300,000, not including HIPAA violation civil penalties, which can be as much as $50,000 per breach, with a maximum of $1.5 million annually for repeated occurrences. But it is not just the monetary aspect that makes breaches so costly; the loss of brand value is a major threat as well.

Since 2009, more than 180,000 small breaches have been reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), compared with just 1,700 breaches involving more than 500 patients. While large scale breaches caused by hacking pose an obvious threat, smaller breaches are not to be taken lightly.

In fact, there is a heightened awareness of small breaches across the healthcare industry. The OCR launched a new initiative in August 2016 aimed at increasing the investigative and enforcement authority of its regional offices. This initiative allows regional offices to prioritize which breaches to investigate and how to allocate resources based on the size of the breach, the theft or improper disposal of unencrypted PHI, the amount, nature and sensitivity of the PHI involved, and other considerations.

According to the OCR, this initiative will help “more widely investigate the root causes of breaches affecting fewer than 500 individuals.” Regional offices will look for patterns and series of breaches in order to quell their increasing frequency.

The Risky Business of Release of Information

MRO’s research shows there are as many as 40 disclosure points across individual health systems. Most of these disclosure points tend to be managed outside the health Information management (HIM) department by individuals not trained in release of information (ROI) and PHI disclosure management. This trend of expanding disclosure points is one of the key factors driving breach risk in the ROI process.

Another key factor driving risk involves gaps in the quality assurance (QA) processes. Research shows that approximately 30 percent of all ROI authorizations are initially invalid, and up to 10 percent of these invalid authorizations are processed with errors if ROI workflows lack redundant QA checks. Moreover, some five percent of patient data in electronic medical records (EMRs) have integrity issues, including comingled patient records. Without proper QA measures in place, 0.7 percent of records released will contain mixed patient data, which means an organization releasing 100,000 requests annually could potentially release 700 comingled records.

The increasingly complex regulations and compliance requirements for sharing PHI constitute another factor in the growing number of small breaches caused by improper disclosure. According to a 2015 Ponemon Institute survey, 40 percent of breaches are caused by unintentional employee actions, which lead to improper disclosures.

Filling the Gaps in ROI Workflow to Minimize Breach Risk

Deploying an enterprise-wide strategy for PHI disclosure management standardizes policies and procedures, as well as technologies, across a health system. Having a streamlined ROI workflow as part of that strategy helps eliminate inefficiencies, distractions and errors.

Additionally, redundant QA checks are vital for disclosure accuracy. Providing a “second set of eyes” on all authorizations and PHI before release will help reduce improper disclosures. These additional quality checks should come from a combination of trained ROI specialists and record integrity technology that uses optical character recognition to locate and correct comingled records. This combination of people and technology will drive improved accuracy and minimize breach risk.

ensure that their current policies and procedures align with the law. 

Sara Goldstein, Esq.

Sara Goldstein, Esq. is an established author and speaker on health information privacy and security compliance. As general counsel for MRO, she is responsible for providing legal direction and guidance for the company and overseeing MRO’s compliance with HIPAA. She is also an adjunct professor of law at Drexel University, where she teaches a course on HIPAA and patient privacy.

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