The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) maintains an online list of covered entities and business associates that have experienced PHI breaches where more than 500 individual patient records were involved. As of the writing of this post, a total of 572 reported breaches are listed on this website. What can we learn from this information?
First, the dataset covers breaches reported from September, 2009 through February, 2013. A total of more than 21 million patient records are listed on this report (though it is likely there is some duplication of patient records between data breaches reported here). These incidents total less than the single data loss reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006 when a single laptop was stolen from an employee’s home that contained in excess of 26 million records. Nonetheless, a significant amount of PHI has been lost or stolen and reported to HHS over the last three and a half years.
Second, the most common scenarios for PHI breaches are tape backups that are lost, followed by theft. Almost 6 million patient records were affected by this kind of data loss. The theft or loss of a laptop came in fourth, affecting about 2.3 million patient records. Theft generally accounted for more than one third of all records compromised, followed next by loss (which probably includes scenarios like we accidentally put the backup tapes in the dumpster, or the tape fell out of my bag between the office and my car), also accounting for about one third of all records compromised. Hacking appears down the list, affecting a total of 1.3 million patient records.
Third, a little more than half of data breaches appear to involve a business associate of a covered entity in terms of patient records breached. However, only 92 of the 572 data breaches note a business associate’s involvement, which tends to suggest that when a business associate is involved, more records on average are affected by the data breach. This is consistent with the expectation that technology vendors like those that implement and/or host electronic health records often do so for more clients and are a bigger target for data theft or hacking and computer viruses.
With the change in breach notification in the final HIPAA regulations recently issued by HHS, it will be interesting to see if there are more breach notifications published to HHS’ web site.