Examples of Unintentional HIPAA Violations & How to Avoid Them

The HIPAA law was established to provide regulatory standards for all healthcare organizations and professionals to ensure quality health and patient care. All members of the organization should be trained to ensure compliance with the law as violating them could have serious consequences. However, even the best intentions don't always translate to results. Make sure you closely monitor your staff to avoid common examples of unintentional HIPAA violations.


Examples of Unintentional HIPAA Violations

The majority of the reported HIPAA violations are unintentional. Knowing this, healthcare organizations must practice higher diligence in training and educating their personnel to avoid potential HIPAA violations. The best way to safeguard your patients and ensure compliance is to understand how these unintentional violations could happen. Otherwise, you could be facing hefty fines and legal actions.

Below are some examples of unintentional HIPAA violations so you can take action to prevent them.

HIPAA Violation Example 1: Posting to Social Media

This type of violation is one of the most common types of HIPAA violations in this social media age. Healthcare providers and staff are mostly on social media such as Facebook or Instagram. It is very common for these people to divulge information about their patients or cases they are handling without being aware that they are doing it.

An example of this is Olivia O'Leary, who worked at the Onslow Memorial Hospital in North Carolina. She was fired from her job for accidentally divulging information about a patient in a Facebook comment. The patient was involved in an auto accident and O'Leary commented on Facebook that the patient should've worn a seat belt. While her intent was good, this was a breach of patient privacy. Therefore, this was a good example of an unintentional HIPAA violation.

how to prevent HIPAA unintentional violations

HIPAA Violation Example 2: Denying Patient Access to Medical Records

Another common violation (albeit unintentional) is when covered healthcare entities deny patients the right to access their medical records. This type of violation is the opposite of when healthcare organizations leak confidential patient information, something which many organizations carefully safeguard against. As a result, the former case is more common and many entities are not even aware of committing such violations.

A similar case in 2020 involved the Riverside Psychiatric Medical Group, which was fined $25,000 for this type of violation. This incident is a good example of how minor technicalities can result in an unintentional violation. A patient of the aforementioned healthcare entity requested access to her medical records but was denied since her records contained psychotherapy notes (which is not allowed). However, the HIPAA law clearly states that if the healthcare entity is unable to release patient records, they must be provided with a written explanation.

The best approach, in this case, would have been to release a copy of the patient's records but omit the psychotherapy notes. The Riverside Psychiatric Medical Group failed to provide a copy of the medical records and a written explanation, which resulted in the fine.

HIPAA Violation Example 3: Use of Personal Devices

The handling of patient health information (PHI) should be treated with the utmost confidentiality. Healthcare organizations must update their infrastructure to ensure that all security controls are in place when collecting, storing, and sharing PHI.

Unfortunately, it is a common practice in many healthcare organizations to allow their staff to use their personal devices at work. This practice could result in serious security breaches since these devices are not encrypted and do not meet the security control standards by HIPAA.

In 2012, the Hospice of North Idaho learned this lesson the hard way. The healthcare facility was fined $50,000 after an employee's laptop was stolen. The laptop, which was used at work, contained confidential PHI and the device was unencrypted.

HIPAA Violation Example 4: Failure to Obtain Business Associate Agreement

Healthcare organizations work with many other entities (known as business associates) when providing service to their patients. For example, a healthcare clinic will partner with an X-ray clinician as part of the patient diagnosis procedure.

Covered entities under the HIPAA law must enter into a Business Associate Agreement with third-party providers. This agreement will ensure that the business associates also observe the highest standard in healthcare and patient information compliance. If not, you could be unintentionally violating the law.

A real-life example of such a violation involved the Raleigh Orthopedic Clinic in North Carolina. The clinic was fined $750,000 for its HIPAA violation when it contracted a third-party service provider to convert its X-ray films into digital form. Once the X-ray films were converted digitally, they permitted the contractor to recycle the X-ray films. This act was a clear violation of HIPAA laws, particularly in the unlawful disclosure of PHI. The two parties had not entered into a Business Associate Agreement.

consequences of HIPAA violations


Consequences of HIPAA Violations

The HIPAA law addresses all violations the same way; regardless of whether or not it was unintentional. The onus falls on the healthcare organization to take precautionary measures to safeguard patient records and ensure that they can maintain compliance.

The penalty structure under the HIPAA law is tiered. The type of penalty incurred will depend on the severity of the violation. Willful neglect is considered the highest form of HIPAA violation, but even unintentional ones come with a hefty fine.

As of 2022, HIPAA follows this penalty structure:

  • Tier 1 - $100 to $50,000 per violation or a maximum of $25,000 per year

  • Tier 2 - $1,000 to $50,000 per violation or a maximum of $10,000 per year

  • Tier 3 - $10,000 to $50,000 per violation or a maximum of $250,000 per year

  • Tier 4 - $50,000 per violation or a maximum of $1.5 million per year

Final Thoughts

As you can see from the list above, violating the HIPAA law can be costly for healthcare organizations. If you want to avoid the fines, you must be careful to implement the proper safeguards to maintain compliance. It is a good practice to undergo continuous training and education for your staff to ensure that they are aware of the latest HIPAA law revisions so you can avoid unintentional violations of any kind.