Nurses have unrestricted access to patients’ protected health information (PHI). Patients place the utmost trust in nurses by sharing their personal information so they can receive the care they need. It is the responsibility of nurses to make sure that they do not become desensitized to the importance of respecting patient privacy.
Most of us have had extensive education in our nursing classes and our organizations on the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and more specifically the Privacy and Security Rules. Even if it is unintentional, being careless with private healthcare information can jeopardize patient confidentiality and result in disciplinary action, fines or even criminal charges.
How Nurses Risk Violating Confidentiality
Nurses play a key role in protecting health information. As members of the most trusted profession, nurses pride themselves on protecting patient privacy. A nurse’s role regarding HIPAA concerns the confidentiality, security and transmission of PHI. HIPAA limits disclosure of this information without patient authorization, and identifies patient rights to their healthcare information and their ability to obtain a copy of their medical records. A few ways nurses could violate HIPAA include:
- Disclosing confidential patient information through gossip, or discussing a patient in public areas such as in the cafeteria, stairs or elevator.
- Accessing information for patients not in their care.
- Improperly discarding documents that should be shredded.
- Leaving information visible to unauthorized individuals on computer screens or in unconcealed documents.
- Sharing information, photographs or videos on social media or elsewhere.
Consequences of Violating HIPAA
The nurse’s supervisor or the appointed Privacy Officer responsible for HIPAA compliance for the healthcare organization needs to be notified of any HIPAA violations witnessed. Minor violations still result in negative consequences, but they might be addressed with internal measures such as disciplinary action or additional training.
Failure to report minor violations could result in major consequences. A healthcare organization could be fined for poor hiring practices, training or supervision. HIPAA violation penalties are tiered based on the level of negligence determined by the Department of Health and Human Services or the state attorney general. The four categories range from unknowing violations to willful disregard of HIPAA rules. The minimum fine is $100 per violation (up to $50,000) for Category 1 violations. The minimum fine for a Category 4 violation is $50,000. If criminal violations come into consideration in addition to financial penalties, they are handled by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Strive to Prevent HIPAA Violations
Most organizations take HIPAA education seriously. Nurses should know the policies and procedures of their agency to understand not only the agency’s expectations but also the requirements of their state practice act.
Mobile and electronic devices – Database breaches and hacking constitute a significant concern for those in charge of maintaining HIPAA compliance. Protect devices that have private health information. Ensure that passwords are strong and changed frequently, and maintain proper encryption and firewalls. Plan for a lost or stolen device by ensuring the ability to remotely lock or reset the device and erase information.
Disposal and storage of files – Be careful to avoid misfiling. Shred paper documents that contain protected information. Ensure that records are locked and only accessed by appropriate staff. Electronic records can be unintentionally saved on the wrong computer drive or network, so checking one’s work is crucial.
Mindfulness of the environment – Conceal protected information and do not leave paper files or information on computer monitors in view. Other staff or visitors might be tempted to illegally access files of friends or relatives.
Oversharing in person or on social media – People might enquire about a friend or relative, but sharing information without the patient’s permission is prohibited. Avoid posting workplace pictures on social media to avoid unintentionally exposing PHI.
Safeguarding Patient Trust
Nurses spend years building a solid foundation of patient trust and take their responsibility seriously. Therefore, the best way for nurses to protect patients’ healthcare information is by ensuring adequate education on HIPAA and by staying aware of the potential risks of violating that trust.
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