February 21, 2021
Last year was historic for HIPAA enforcement. The HHS Office of Civil Rights collected a record $23.5 million in settlements and judgments against providers guilty of HIPAA violations. To avoid becoming part of that unwanted statistic, it's important to pay extra close attention to five key areas of HIPAA vulnerability.
Take Advantage of Refresher Training
The best way to protect against liabilities is to continually educate and train staff. A practice may feel confident that it understands HIPAA. But while close to 90 percent of doctors believe their practices are fully compliant, at least 75 percent of them still have rudimentary questions about HIPAA. That indicates that the vast majority of providers can benefit from a HIPAA compliance refresher course. Participants should include everyone from top administrators to community volunteers. Training everyone with access to PHI isn't just a good idea; it's the law.
Any lost, stolen, or hacked electronic device containing protect patient information can be an expensive liability. All electronic PHI should be securely encrypted. That includes data communicated via email, text messages, and smartphone messaging apps. Even though an app like the popular WhatsApp may boast that it offers encryption, it may still lack proper authentication controls. Before using any text messaging service to communicate patient information, make sure the practice has a signed HIPAA-compliant business associate agreement with the service provider.
Most healthcare employees understand that they should never share passwords or log-in information. But these credentials should never even be written down. Another way that HIPAA violations frequently occur is because a computer screen is left on where unauthorized persons can see it. Front office staff and nurses may step away from a computer to handle an emergency, leaving the screen temporarily visible or photographable. Physicians sometimes make the mistake of leaving a laptop open at home, where others – including family members or friends – can see patient information. Those are innocent mistakes, but are still liabilities.
Secure Online Portals and Safeguard Paper Records
Paper records continue to represent potential liability as long as they exist. They must be securely handled and archived until shredded. Practices that have not transitioned from paper documents such as invoices and monthly statements can avoid HIPAA liability – and the effort that paper documents require – by going digital. Electronic records are easier to manage, search, store, and protect. There are fully compliant platforms that can safeguard patient records while also giving patients easier 24/7 access. That reduces liability and front office calls from patients. Patients gain greater control over their care with more transparency. A patient portal can also enhance doctor/patient interaction and communication.
Beware Social Media
Most healthcare workers know not to post photos of patients online. But sometimes sharing photos that don't include patients can still be a liability because confidential information is accidentally included. Criminals often blow up photos that include a work station or home office, for example, to focus in on relatively obscure and minor details. A piece of paper or file in the background may contain PHI. That's why it's good policy to be extra vigilant regarding tweets, Facebook posts, and pictures uploaded to sites like Instagram. When in doubt, don't upload it, share it, or talk about it.
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