Examples Of Unintentional HIPAA Violations

Author: Paul Stoute
Date Published: June 23, 2023

Are you aware of the potential HIPAA violations that can occur in your workplace? Even unintentional violations can lead to serious consequences, such as hefty fines and loss of patient trust. It’s crucial to be knowledgeable about these violations and take steps to prevent them from happening. In this article, we’ll go over examples of unintentional HIPAA violations that commonly occur in the workplace, including email disclosures, improper disposal of PHI, unauthorized access, use of unsecured devices for storage, failure to obtain patient authorization, lack of risk assessments, improper storage, misuse for personal gain and failure to report data breaches in a timely manner.

It’s important to note that many unintentional HIPAA violations occur due to a lack of awareness or understanding. For instance, sending an email with protected health information (PHI) may seem harmless if you’re not familiar with HIPAA regulations. However, even accidental disclosures like this can result in severe consequences. By learning about these common mistakes and taking proactive measures to prevent them from happening within your organization, you can safeguard patient privacy while also avoiding potential legal trouble. So let’s dive into some examples of unintentional HIPAA violations and what you can do to avoid them.

Key Takeaways

  • Accidental release of protected health information (PHI) is a common cause of unintentional HIPAA violations.
  • HIPAA privacy officer of the covered entity (CE) must be informed if any of the HIPAA regulations are breached.
  • A risk assessment and investigation should be performed to determine the nature and extent of the breach, potential harm, and action plan to reduce the risk.
  • Portable electronic devices and social media are potential areas where unintentional HIPAA violations can occur, and policies and procedures must be in place to prevent such incidents.

Disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI) through Email

You may unintentionally violate HIPAA by disclosing protected health information (PHI) through email, which is not secure and can easily be forwarded or intercepted. Even if you think you are sending the email to the right person, there is always a chance that it could end up in the wrong hands. To avoid this, use a secure messaging system that encrypts messages and requires authentication before allowing access to PHI.

If you do accidentally send an email containing PHI, notify your HIPAA privacy officer immediately. They will need to assess the situation and determine whether it constitutes a reportable breach. In any case, you should take steps to retrieve the message and make sure that no one else has access to it. Your privacy officer will guide you through any necessary next steps.

Failure to properly dispose of PHI is another common unintentional HIPAA violation that can lead to serious consequences. Keep reading for more information on how to prevent this type of violation and what steps to take if it occurs.

Failure to Properly Dispose of PHI

If your workplace does not properly dispose of protected health information, it can lead to a data breach and potential HIPAA penalties. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Ponemon Institute, improper disposal of PHI accounted for 10% of all reported healthcare data breaches in 2019. It is crucial that you ensure that all paper documents containing PHI are securely shredded or incinerated before being disposed of. Electronic devices must also be wiped clean using software designed specifically for this purpose.

The consequences of failing to dispose of PHI properly can be significant. In addition to the financial penalties that may be imposed under HIPAA regulations, there is also the risk of reputational damage and loss of trust from patients who entrust their sensitive personal information with your organization. Properly disposing of PHI should therefore be given high priority within any healthcare organization.

Unauthorized access to PHI can have serious implications for both patients and covered entities. Therefore, it is important for employees at all levels to understand how best to protect patient privacy and comply with HIPAA regulations.

Unauthorized Access to PHI

Unauthorized access to PHI can lead to serious consequences for both patients and healthcare organizations, highlighting the importance of proper safeguards and training. Employees must be trained to understand the importance of protecting patient information from unauthorized access, which includes ensuring that passwords are changed regularly, not sharing login credentials, and logging off when leaving a device unattended.

One example of an unintentional HIPAA violation involving unauthorized access occurred in 2019 when an employee at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) accessed the medical records of more than 1,000 patients without authorization. The employee was terminated and OHSU notified affected individuals about the breach. This case illustrates how quickly an unintentional violation can occur and emphasizes the need for strict security measures.

To prevent unintentional HIPAA violations related to unauthorized access, healthcare organizations should implement technical safeguards such as firewalls, encryption, and secure authentication methods. Additionally, they should ensure that employees have undergone thorough training on safeguarding PHI against unauthorized access or disclosure. Failure to do so could result in costly fines and reputational damage for the organization.

Moving forward into our next section about ‘use of unsecured devices for phi storage’, it is important for healthcare organizations to consider how portable electronic devices increase risk of HIPAA violations due to lost or stolen devices that contain unprotected PHI.

Use of Unsecured Devices for PHI Storage

Using unsecured devices for storing PHI can put both patients and healthcare organizations at risk of data breaches, which can have serious consequences. Employees who store PHI on their personal devices or unencrypted USB drives are putting sensitive information in danger of theft or loss. Portable electronic devices are easily lost or stolen, and if they contain unprotected PHI, it could result in an impermissible disclosure of PHI.

To prevent unintentional HIPAA violations related to the use of unsecured devices for storing PHI, covered entities and business associates can take the following steps:

  1. Implement policies and procedures that cover the use of all personal devices.
  2. Educate employees on how to handle portable electronic devices containing PHI.
  3. Use security controls such as encryption to ensure that in the event of loss or theft, no PHI is exposed.

Failure to obtain patient authorization for phi disclosure can also lead to accidental HIPAA violations.

Failure to Obtain Patient Authorization for PHI Disclosure

To prevent accidental breaches of patient privacy, covered entities and business associates must always obtain explicit permission from patients prior to disclosing their PHI. This means that any time a patient’s PHI is going to be shared with someone who is not directly involved in their care or payment for healthcare services, the patient must first give consent. Even if the person requesting the information appears to have a legitimate reason for accessing it, obtaining permission from the patient is necessary.

In order to obtain this permission, covered entities and business associates should have clear policies and procedures in place outlining how permission will be obtained. This may involve having patients sign consent forms or providing verbal consent over the phone. It is important that all employees are trained on these policies and procedures so that they understand when and how they can disclose PHI.

If an unintentional HIPAA violation does occur due to a failure to obtain patient authorization for PHI disclosure, it is important that it be reported immediately to the HIPAA privacy officer of the covered entity or business associate. The risk assessment process outlined earlier should then be followed in order to determine the extent of the breach and establish an action plan for reducing harm.

Sharing PHI with unauthorized third parties can result in serious consequences both for patients and for those responsible for protecting their privacy. To avoid these types of violations, it is essential that all employees understand when they are allowed to share PHI and when they must first obtain explicit authorization from patients.

Sharing PHI with Unauthorized Third Parties

Make sure you are always obtaining explicit permission from patients before sharing their PHI with anyone not directly involved in their care or payment, as failure to do so can result in serious consequences for both the patient and your organization. Sharing PHI with unauthorized third parties is one of the most common unintentional HIPAA violations. It is important to remember that only those who have a need to know should be given access to patient information.

Any accidental disclosure of PHI must be reported to the privacy officer of your covered entity (CE) immediately. The privacy officer will then establish an action plan to deal with the breach, which may involve reporting it to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR). A risk assessment will be performed, which will help determine any further unauthorized disclosures and reduce any risk of harm.

Sharing PHI on social media platforms can also lead to HIPAA violations. Healthcare employees must therefore be told how HIPAA applies to social media posts. Even when intentions are honorable, healthcare employees can face disciplinary action if they accidentally disclose patient information online. Remember that all disclosures must comply with HIPAA regulations and policies at all times.

Next up: The use of social media to share PHI…

Use of Social Media to Share PHI

Sharing patient information on social media platforms can lead to serious consequences for healthcare employees and violate HIPAA regulations. It is important for all employees to understand that posting any information regarding patients on social media, even if it seems harmless, is a major violation of HIPAA regulations. This includes sharing photos, videos or even vague descriptions about patients.

In recent years, there have been several incidents where healthcare professionals have lost their jobs due to unintentional violations of HIPAA on social media platforms. In one case, a medical technician lost her job after commenting on a Facebook post about an auto-accident victim who should have worn a seat belt. Even though the comment was intended as a warning to others, it was still considered a breach of patient privacy and violated HIPAA regulations.

Failure to implement adequate security measures can also lead to accidental breaches of PHI. To prevent such breaches from occurring in your workplace, it is crucial to establish clear policies and procedures around the use of personal devices and social media platforms. Additionally, implementing security controls like encryption can help ensure that in the event of loss or theft, no PHI is exposed.

Failure to Implement Adequate Security Measures

Inadequate security measures can lead to PHI breaches, leaving healthcare organizations vulnerable to penalties and lawsuits. It is essential for covered entities and business associates to implement proper safeguards and controls to protect sensitive information. This could include the use of encryption, firewalls, secure passwords, and regular software updates.

Without these measures in place, data breaches can occur more easily. For example, a lack of encryption on laptops or mobile devices can leave PHI exposed if they are lost or stolen. In 2011, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary paid over $1 million in fines after an unencrypted laptop containing patient information was stolen from an employee’s car.

To prevent this type of HIPAA violation from happening in your organization, it is important to conduct regular risk assessments and audits. These evaluations should identify potential vulnerabilities within your systems and processes that could lead to unauthorized access or disclosure of PHI. By addressing these issues proactively, you can minimize the risk of costly violations down the line.

Inadequate employee training on HIPAA regulations can exacerbate the likelihood of unintentional violations occurring within healthcare organizations. So how can you ensure that everyone within your organization understands their obligations under HIPAA? Keep reading for tips on how best to train your staff on HIPAA compliance.

Inadequate Employee Training on HIPAA Regulations

Properly educating employees on HIPAA regulations is crucial to avoid costly mistakes and ensure the protection of patients’ sensitive information. A lack of training can result in unintentional violations that may put an organization at risk for fines and legal action. Employees need to be aware of the importance of maintaining confidentiality, how to properly handle PHI, and what constitutes a breach.

HIPAA training should not only be part of new employee orientation but also ongoing throughout the year. As technology changes, so do the risks associated with protecting PHI. Regular updates on policies and procedures should be provided, as well as reminders on how to handle certain situations. This could include scenarios such as receiving a request from someone claiming to be a family member or friend of a patient or using personal devices for work-related tasks.

Failing to provide adequate employee training can have serious consequences. Not only does it increase the likelihood of breaches occurring, but it also shows negligence by covered entities and business associates in their duty to protect patient privacy. By investing in comprehensive HIPAA education for employees, organizations can reduce the risk of costly violations while providing better care for patients. Moving forward, it is essential that steps are taken towards preventing these types of unintentional HIPAA violations before they occur – starting with conducting regular risk assessments.

Failure to Conduct Regular Risk Assessments

Ensuring the protection of patients’ sensitive information requires covered entities and business associates to conduct regular risk assessments, educating employees on potential risks and how to prevent them. By not conducting regular risk assessments, your organization is putting itself at risk of unintentional HIPAA violations. Risk assessments identify potential threats to PHI and allow for measures to be put in place to mitigate those risks.

A risk assessment should address all areas where PHI may be vulnerable such as electronic systems, physical records, and verbal communication. This will help identify any gaps in your security protocols that need addressing. A thorough analysis will also provide insight into how well current policies are being implemented by staff members.

Without regularly conducting a comprehensive risk assessment, you run the risk of remaining unaware of vulnerabilities in your organization’s systems and procedures which can lead to breaches of patient information. Improper storage of PHI is one example where a lack of regular assessments can result in unintentional HIPAA violations.

Improper Storage of PHI

Storing patients’ sensitive information in an insecure manner puts their privacy and wellbeing at risk, causing potential harm and distress. Here are some examples of improper storage of PHI that can lead to HIPAA violations:

  1. Leaving paper records or unencrypted electronic devices where they can be accessed by unauthorized individuals.
  2. Failing to password protect electronic devices or using weak passwords.
  3. Failing to encrypt data before transferring it over the internet or storing it on a cloud-based server.
  4. Not establishing procedures for securely disposing of PHI-containing materials.

Improper storage of PHI is a common cause of unintentional HIPAA violations, but there are steps you can take to prevent these breaches from occurring. For instance:

  • You should always store paper records in locked cabinets or rooms with restricted access.
  • You should use strong passwords and encryption methods to protect electronic devices from unauthorized access.
  • When sharing information electronically, you should always use secure transmission methods like encrypted email or secure file transfer protocols (SFTP).
  • Finally, when disposing of PHI-containing materials, such as old hard drives or paper records, make sure they are properly destroyed through shredding or incineration.

Now let’s move on to another topic related to HIPAA violations – misuse of PHI for personal gain.

Misuse of PHI for Personal Gain

You need to understand that using PHI for personal gain, such as selling it or using it for identity theft, is a serious breach of patient privacy and can result in severe consequences. It’s important to remember that PHI belongs solely to the patient and should only be used for legitimate healthcare purposes. Misusing PHI not only violates HIPAA regulations but also undermines the trust between patients and healthcare providers.

HIPAA violations related to misuse of PHI often occur when employees are not properly trained on how to handle sensitive information. For example, an employee may access a patient’s medical records out of curiosity or sell them for financial gain. This type of violation can lead to lawsuits, hefty fines, loss of reputation, and even criminal charges.

To prevent unintended HIPAA violations due to misuse of PHI, covered entities and business associates must implement strict policies regarding access control and staff training programs. Regular audits should be conducted to ensure compliance with these policies. By taking proactive measures, you can protect your organization from potential legal repercussions while upholding patient privacy rights. Failing to report a data breach in a timely manner can further exacerbate the situation by delaying necessary corrective actions and damaging your organization’s credibility with patients and regulatory agencies alike.

Failure to Report a Data Breach in a Timely Manner

Now that we’ve covered the potential risk of healthcare employees misusing PHI for personal gain, let’s move on to another example of an unintentional HIPAA violation: failure to report a data breach in a timely manner. As mentioned earlier, once a privacy breach has been discovered, the covered entity’s privacy officer must be informed so that they can establish an action plan to deal with the breach. If the violation is determined to be a reportable HIPAA breach, it must then be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within 60 days.

Timely reporting of data breaches is crucial as it allows for prompt investigation and mitigation of any harm caused by the disclosure. Failure to do so could result in more severe consequences for both patients and healthcare organizations alike. In fact, according to OCR’s Wall of Shame, many healthcare providers have faced hefty fines due to delayed reporting or even failing altogether to notify affected individuals in a timely manner.

To prevent such violations from happening, covered entities should ensure that their workforce members are well-informed about what constitutes a reportable breach under HIPAA and what steps need to be taken once one occurs. Additionally, regular training sessions on how best to handle such situations could go a long way in reducing instances where confidentiality breaches are not reported promptly.


Congratulations! You have learned about the potential HIPAA violations that can occur in the workplace, and how to prevent and address these incidents. Remember, unintentional HIPAA violations are a serious matter that could result in legal action or damage to your organization’s reputation.

Just like a captain navigating through rough waters, you must be vigilant and proactive in protecting patient privacy. This means staying up-to-date on HIPAA regulations, conducting regular risk assessments, utilizing secure devices for PHI storage, obtaining patient authorization for disclosure of PHI, and reporting data breaches promptly.

By following these guidelines and taking responsibility for your actions in the workplace, you can help ensure that patient information remains confidential and protected. Keep sailing forward with confidence knowing that you have the knowledge and tools to navigate through any potential HIPAA violation challenges.

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