As recently noted by the New York Times in this article, a lot of health data for nearly 11 million people has been inadvertently disclosed in violation of patient privacy. Electronic health records systems alone are not to blame, as readers will note that the improper disposal of paper medical records in dumpsters has happened more than once (23 reports are noted on the HHS website of data breaches exposing 500 or more paper patient records in one way or another from 2009-2010). However, computer databases make it easier to disclose larger amounts of health data than in the paper records days of yore. As a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Congress enacted federal reporting requirements in the event of a data breach by a covered entity. For the entire law, click here: ARRA Enrolled Bill.
Section 13402 provides the statutory basis for requiring a covered entity to report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services when the security of protected health information is breached. Both individual notice to the persons affected by the data breach, and public notification via the local media is required when more than 500 individual’s information has been lost due to a breach. In addition, the covered entity is required to advise the Secretary in the event of a breach in excess of 500 individuals (if less than that, the entity can keep a log and submit it at the end of the year).
Patients may suffer identity theft and public embarrassment when their health information is lost by a covered entity. And, if the breach is substantial enough, the covered entity may lose patients and clinical revenue as a result. Health care providers can reduce the possibility of such data losses by having strong policies and internal database controls that limit access and portability of data by its employees and contractors. Unfortunately, the problem of data loss (whether by accident or because of hacking) appears to not be improving, in spite of a number of sentinel events in the last few years, including the loss of a laptop with health data on over 20 million veterans served by the Veterans Administration.