The Intake

Insights for those starting, managing, and growing independent healthcare practices

How medical practices can navigate HIPAA compliance

Practices can learn to be HIPAA compliant with this in-depth guide.

This is an image of a doctor reading information on a tablet screen.

At a Glance

  • HIPAA establishes national standards for electronic healthcare transactions and protection of patient medical information
  • HIPAA enforcement lies with the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which investigates allegations of noncompliance and can issue fines and criminal penalties
  • Key steps in HIPAA compliance include understanding and documenting the scope of protected health information (PHI), conducting and documenting risk analysis and management, developing policies and procedures that align with HIPAA regulations, and more

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 is one of the most critical pieces of healthcare legislation to date. Since its inception, HIPAA has been subjected to a barrage of misunderstandings, spelling errors (HIPAA, HIPPO, or HIPPA), and even social media hullabaloo

Here's what you need to know about the health privacy law.

What is HIPAA?

HIPAA is a complex tapestry woven from 5 distinct titles. 

  • Title I safeguards health insurance coverage for workers undergoing job transition or facing job loss
  • Title III establishes guidelines for pre-tax medical spending accounts 
  • Title IV regulates group health plans
  • Title V governs revenue offset for tax deductions on company-owned life insurance policies.

However, HIPAA has become almost synonymous with Title II, the administrative simplification provisions establishing national standards for electronic healthcare transactions. More specifically, it relates to the Privacy Rule (45 CFR Part 160 and Subparts A and E of Part 164) as well as the associated Security Rule and Enforcement Rule that encapsulate the regulation and protection of patient medical information.

Effective since 2003 — and amended numerous times particularly with the HITECH Act in 2009 and the Omnibus Rule in 2013 — HIPAA's Privacy Rule established clear regulations and requirements to protect patient medical information, including patient identifiers. 

Contrary to popular belief, HIPAA does not cover every piece of medical information nor anyone outside of “covered entities.” Covered entities are healthcare providers, health insurers, clearinghouses (that transmit medical records electronically), and business associates. This means that if a practice owner does not bill insurance or CMS, it’s unlikely that it would be covered by HIPAA regulations. 

How is HIPAA enforced?

In the United States, enforcement of laws and regulations is mainly complaint driven. In this context, despite common perception, HIPAA is not enforceable on an individual basis, and a person cannot sue you “under HIPAA” or for “HIPAA violations.” However, the path of enforcement lies through the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR can investigate allegations of noncompliance, as well as issue fines and criminal penalties. Moreover, state attorney generals can also sue for HIPAA violations in federal district courts.

Fines for HIPAA Privacy Rule violations have been sensationalized by the media for “huge” violations and associated fines to the tune of millions of dollars. However, they can range from $100 to $50,000 — multiplied by an annual multiplier to reflect inflation. OCR issues penalties on a 4-tier scale: 

  • Tier 1 (lack of knowledge): An infringement that the involved party could not have known or prevented realistically, despite observing a fair level of caution in accordance with HIPAA.
  • Tier 2 (reasonable cause): An infringement that the involved party could reasonably have known about, yet could not have prevented, even with adequate caution. (This, however, does not amount to deliberate HIPAA negligence.)
  • Tier 3 (willful neglect): An infringement arising directly from the deliberate negligence of HIPAA where there was an effort made to rectify the violation.
  • Tier 4 (willful neglect that was not corrected): An infringement arising directly from the deliberate negligence of HIPAA where there was no effort to rectify the violation within a 30-day period. 

Furthermore, OCR has also waived penalties in cases where the covered entity could not realistically have been expected to avoid a data breach. Then the question becomes: how does a medical practice comply? 

All about HIPAA compliance

The first rule of compliance with any regulation from a medical practice standpoint should always be documentation. In this context, HIPAA compliance is no different. Assuming you’re a covered entity, the key steps depend on documentation. You should start your compliance journey with understanding the scope of material covered and classified as protected health information (PHI). Subsequently you should ensure completion and documentation.

Risk analysis and management 

Risk analysis and management are key components of the Security Rule under HIPAA. Covered Entities (CEs) must conduct a thorough and accurate assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic PHI (ePHI) in their possession. This risk analysis should be systematic and include an evaluation of the likelihood and impact of potential risks to ePHI. It should also incorporate measures to implement security features to mitigate these risks to a reasonable and appropriate extent, meaning your password should not be Password1234.

This risk management process should also:

  • Assess existing security measures 
  • Document potential threats and vulnerabilities, and
  • Determine the likelihood of threat occurrence and the potential impact 
Risk analysis and management should include periodic updates driven by routine audits to identify any new threats or vulnerabilities, and ensure the implemented security measures are functioning correctly. ”

It should also not be forgotten that risk analysis and management is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Risk analysis and management should include periodic updates driven by routine audits to identify any new threats or vulnerabilities, and ensure the implemented security measures are functioning correctly. Remember, your electronic systems need updates to stay secure.

Developing policies and procedures 

As a CE, you must develop comprehensive policies and procedures that align with HIPAA. These guidelines should cover how to manage PHI properly and address specific issues like access controls, transmission security, encryption, and incident response — as well as should tackle issues raised in your risk analysis.

Furthermore, you should establish policies and procedures around access controls to include unique user identification, emergency access procedure, automatic logoff, and encryption and decryption. Finally, as a CE you should outline breach notification procedures and a contingency plan in case of emergencies. Review and update these policies and procedures regularly to reflect changes in business practices or law.

Staff training and documentation 

Training is a key element of HIPAA compliance. The regulations mandate that all members of the workforce (including volunteers and trainees) must receive training on PHI policies and procedures. This training should be part of the onboarding process and periodic afterward.

Regular training reinforces HIPAA's importance and keeps staff up to date. It should emphasize patient confidentiality and note the consequences of non-compliance. It should also ensure staff can identify situations that might pose a risk to PHI privacy and security. Finally, you should maintain records of all training sessions as proof of compliance in case of audits or investigations. If a training is not documented or archived, it may be deemed that it never happened.

Business associate agreements 

As a medical practice in an ever-competitive marketplace, you may decide to rely on outsourcing critical aspects of your practice such as billing and coding. Remember that HIPAA doesn’t only apply to you as a healthcare provider but also to other entities that handle PHI on your behalf, including business associates (BAs). 

BAs can be third-party administrators, data analysis companies, IT providers, and more. To ensure that BAs also comply with HIPAA, CEs must sign a business associate agreement (BAA) with these entities. A BAA is a written contract that outlines each party's responsibility in ensuring the privacy and security of PHI. It mandates that the BA must: 

  • Safeguard the PHI it receives or creates 
  • Limit its use and disclosure of PHI 
  • Assist the CE in responding to individuals' requests for their health records 
  • Report any breaches of unsecured PHI to the CE, and
  • Upon termination of the contract, return or destroy all PHI 

Building a culture of compliance

Beyond implementing the appropriate technical and administrative safeguards, building a culture of compliance within your medical practice is crucial. This culture should promote an understanding that patient data privacy and security are not just legal requirements, but essential components of patient care.

Patient data privacy and security are not just legal requirements, but essential components of patient care. ”

To foster this culture:

  • Encourage transparency: Communication on HIPAA compliance should be transparent. Staff should feel comfortable raising concerns about potential vulnerabilities and know how to do so.
  • Adopt a proactive approach: Regularly assess and update security measures, monitor systems for potential threats, and hold routine trainings. Remember, the penalties are larger for breaches not fixed or reported.
  • Leverage technology: There are numerous HIPAA-compliant software solutions designed to assist with compliance, offering services such as encrypted messaging, secure email, and electronic health records (EHRs). These tools can help to streamline and strengthen your practice's HIPAA compliance efforts.

HIPAA compliance as a cornerstone for medical practice excellence

HIPAA compliance constitutes an integral component of contemporary medical practice. It delineates the boundaries within which healthcare providers operate, handling sensitive patient data amidst rapidly evolving technological advancements and increasing cybersecurity threats. 

The complexities surrounding HIPAA's implementation and enforcement present significant challenges. However, understanding the legislation's intricate structure, coupled with a proactive, vigilant approach towards compliance, can safeguard healthcare providers from potential legal repercussions. It can also reinforce their commitment to patients' privacy and security.

Compliance should not be perceived merely as a statutory obligation but as a core value of the medical practice. It requires continuous efforts, starting from conducting a thorough risk assessment to: 

  • Developing robust policies and procedures 
  • Engaging in regular staff training 
  • Ensuring accountability of business associates 

Ultimately, these practices contribute to building a culture of compliance — a necessary foundation for any medical institution's successful operation in this digital age.

However, the journey to full compliance is not a destination but an ongoing process, one that demands continuous engagement, vigilance, and adaptation to the evolving landscape of healthcare practices. By fostering a culture that values and respects patient privacy and encourages transparency and accountability, healthcare providers can ensure that they remain on the right side of HIPAA compliance. This in turn reinforces trust from patients, and maintains the integrity of a practice. By integrating these practices into their operational DNA, healthcare providers can turn HIPAA compliance into an opportunity for institutional excellence and patient confidence.

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Written by

Baran Erdik, physician and healthcare consultant

Dr. Baran Erdik, MD, MHPA is a physician with further specialization in internal medicine/cardiology. He has traveled the world, working as a physician in New Zealand, Germany, and Washington State. He’s been published numerous times and currently works in healthcare compliance and consulting.

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