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10 HIPAA Violations to Watch Out for While Working Remotely

April 25, 2023

The rise of telehealth and remote work environments in the last few years poses a potential threat to patients’ protected health information (PHI). This is largely due to our increased reliance on technology and its ability to bridge the distance between patients, health care providers, and healthcare organizations. 

While the transition from paper to technology has improved care, connection, and processes, it comes with the added risk of cybersecurity threats and attacks. 

What is HIPAA? 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a federal law regulating and safeguarding PHI through standards. HIPAA was introduced initially to ensure that employees could keep healthcare coverage between employment and not face discrimination for any pre-existing conditions that they may have.

HIPAA Privacy Rule 

The HIPAA Privacy Rule was issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement the standards of HIPAA. The Privacy Rule outlines strict guidelines to ensure HIPAA safeguard requirements are followed and implemented effectively. 

HIPAA Security Rule 

The HIPAA Security Rule provides national standards to protect an individual’s electronic personal health information (e-PHI). The Security Rule ensures that the appropriate technical, physical, and administrative safeguards are employed to protect the integrity, security, and confidentiality of e-PHI. 

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Who is required to follow HIPAA? 

The following organizations and individuals are required to follow the privacy rule and are treated as conversed entities: 

  • Health care providers 
  • Health plans 
  • Health care clearinghouses 
  • Business associates of covered entities  

What is considered a HIPAA violation? 

A HIPAA violation is generally characterized as any violation of the Security, Privacy, or Breach Notification Rules, even if no harm comes from it. HIPAA violations are separated into four categories: Category 1, Category 2, Category 3, and Category 4.

Some violations, such as incidental uses and disclosures, typically would not result in financial penalties. If workforce members violate HIPAA through incidental disclosures and uses, they would likely be required to undergo further training. 

Is working remotely a HIPAA violation? 

Working remotely is not a HIPAA violation, as HIPAA regulations do not exclusively apply to a location such as a hospital or an office. Instead, these regulations apply to how PHI is handled. 

However, working remotely can be complicated. This is because remote employees are still expected to maintain HIPAA compliance on their networks, devices, and work environment. 

The most common HIPAA violations related to remote work include the following: 

1. Unsecure internet access

Transmitting e-PHI over unsecured networks, such as Wi-Fi networks at a coffee shop, internet cafe, or even at home, can increase the risk of patient data becoming accessible to hackers. 

2. Improper handling of paper-based PHI

Paper-based procedures are still commonly used for some elements of a healthcare organization’s operations. This may result in unauthorized access to PHI. For example, if a remote employee prints out patient information from their family printer, the household may access these files. 

3. Improper disposal of files

Improper disposal includes disposing of files, physical or electronic, in a way that information can still be read or accessed by unauthorized individuals.

Healthcare organizations have HIPAA-compliant measures in place to dispose of digital and physical PHI files. With remote workers, organizations may fall short of providing secure methods for properly disposing of these files. 

4. Unauthorized devices 

HIPAA rules require all devices that use, gather, store, or transfer e-PHI to be safeguarded by specific security controls. Employees often use multiple devices to complete their daily tasks, so it is possible to use a device their organization did not authorize unintentionally. 

Thus, IT departments must keep track of each device connecting to their network, and employees must always ensure to use authorized devices when handling PHI and other sensitive data.

5. Insufficient compliance training program 

Business associates and covered entities are required to renew their HIPAA certifications annually through compliance training programs. All staff, including remote employees, must complete compliance training. 

These programs provide valuable information on HIPAA rules and how to protect patient privacy effectively. Poor compliance training programs can leave organizations vulnerable to HIPAA violations.

6. Lost or stolen records 

The HIPAA Security Rule outlines security and safeguards to ensure minimal risk of unauthorized access to PHI. Suppose a USB flash drive that contained e-PHI was stolen or lost. This is a direct HIPAA violation, as the situation is deemed a foreseeable incident that could have been prevented. 

7. Incorrect filing of PHI

Incorrect filing can result in unauthorized access to PHI. For example, if a health care provider sends digital X-ray results to the wrong physician or patient information to the wrong patient, there is the risk of unauthorized access and the theft of PHI. 

8. Phishing scams 

Phishing scams are a common way cybercriminals trick individuals into accidentally revealing passwords and other sensitive information by sending them communications that appear to come from a reputable source. 

Refresher courses for all employees on cybersecurity awareness can help reduce these risks. Regular penetration testing helps detect vulnerabilities and threats, providing ways to strengthen the system and insight into when cyberattacks occur, like phishing scams. 

9. Unencrypted data 

With most communication occurring through text, email, and other messaging platforms, it’s easy to forget how vulnerable that information is. If PHI is not encrypted appropriately, there is an increased risk of cyberattacks, threats, and data breaches. 

For example, cell phones are a convenient tool for health care providers, especially remote employees. But is texting HIPAA-compliant? 

Well, yes, if the electronic communication meets HIPAA compliance safeguards, including access and audit controls, encryption, and a Business Associate Agreement (BAA). While regular SMS texting does not meet these safeguards, HIPAA-compliant text messaging apps are available, like iPlum. 

10. Lack of physical security 

For example, leaving paper PHI unattended in communal rooms of the house or on the table at a coffee shop increases the risk of theft or unauthorized access to these files. 

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What if your remote workers accidentally violate HIPAA rules?

Human error does occur, even with the correct safeguards in place. So what happens if a remote worker violates HIPAA rules? 

According to HIPAA’s Breach Notification Rule (BNR), all HIPAA-covered individuals and their business associates are required to provide notification following a breach of PHI to the affected individuals, the Secretary, and covered entities.

If you fail to report a HIPAA breach, even if it is accidental, you risk incurring HIPAA violation penalties.

Get compliant and stay compliant

As telehealth and remote work become increasingly prevalent in the healthcare industry, it is crucial to ensure the protection of patients’ protected health information (PHI) in accordance with HIPAA regulations. 

With Scytale, you get everything you need to become HIPAA compliant. Our automated HIPAA compliance provides the following: 

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Our compliance experts will help you every step of the way so you can begin storing, managing, and transferring PHI securely. 

If you work in a remote healthcare environment, it is crucial to understand the requirements of HIPAA and ensure compliance to protect patients’ PHI. Stay informed about the latest HIPAA regulations, follow proper security measures, and ensure HIPAA compliance with Scytale to mitigate risks. See what our customer, Biobeat has to say!