What is a HIPAA breach?

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Compliance News, HIPAA News and Advice

A HIPAA breach refers to any unauthorized acquisition, access, use, or disclosure of PHI that compromises its security or privacy. Breaches can take various forms, ranging from accidental incidents to deliberate actions. Common examples include the loss or theft of electronic devices containing PHI, improper disposal of medical records, unauthorized access by employees, hacking, phishing attacks, and sharing PHI with unauthorized third parties.

Causes and Consequences: HIPAA breaches can arise from various factors. Human error, such as the mishandling of patient information, inadequate training, or failure to follow established policies and procedures, can lead to unintentional breaches. Malicious intent, such as intentional data theft or unauthorized access, can also result in breaches. Regardless of the cause, the consequences of a breach can be far-reaching.

The impact of a HIPAA breach can extend beyond the compromise of sensitive health information. It can erode patients’ trust in healthcare organizations, lead to reputational damage, legal consequences, financial penalties, and potential lawsuits. Moreover, breaches can have detrimental effects on individuals whose privacy and security have been compromised, exposing them to identity theft, fraud, and other potential harms.

When a breach occurs, covered entities and business associates are obligated to respond promptly and effectively. The first step is to conduct a thorough investigation to assess the scope and impact of the breach. If it is determined that a breach has occurred, covered entities must mitigate any harm caused and take immediate steps to prevent further unauthorized access or disclosure.

HIPAA regulations require the notification of affected individuals and, in certain cases, regulatory authorities, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and potentially affected individuals. The notifications must include information about the breach, steps individuals can take to protect themselves, and the measures taken by the covered entity to mitigate the breach and prevent future occurrences.

Prevention is the key to reducing the risk of HIPAA breaches. Covered entities and their business associates should prioritize robust security measures to safeguard PHI. This includes implementing administrative, technical, and physical safeguards, such as access controls, encryption, secure storage, employee training programs, and regular risk assessments.

Ensuring staff members receive comprehensive training on HIPAA regulations, security protocols, and the proper handling of PHI is crucial. Additionally, implementing stringent policies and procedures for data management, access controls, and incident response plans can help detect and address breaches promptly.

Protecting PHI is a fundamental aspect of healthcare operations, and HIPAA breaches pose significant threats to individuals’ privacy and security. Understanding the causes, consequences, and necessary steps to mitigate breaches is essential for covered entities, business associates, and healthcare professionals. By adhering to HIPAA regulations, implementing robust security measures, and fostering a culture of privacy and security, healthcare organizations can minimize the risk of breaches, preserve patients’ trust, and safeguard the integrity of protected health information.

HIPAA Breach ExampleDescription
Stolen LaptopA laptop containing unencrypted PHI is stolen, potentially exposing sensitive health information to unauthorized individuals.
Phishing AttackMalicious actors send deceptive emails or messages, tricking employees into revealing login credentials or providing access to PHI.
Improper Disposal of Medical RecordsPhysical documents containing PHI are improperly disposed of, allowing unauthorized individuals to access and exploit sensitive health information.
Unauthorized Access by EmployeeAn employee accesses PHI without a legitimate reason or proper authorization, violating HIPAA regulations and compromising the privacy and security of patient data.
Hacking into Healthcare SystemsCybercriminals gain unauthorized access to healthcare systems, compromising the security of PHI and potentially causing significant disruptions in patient care and data privacy.
Disclosure of PHI to Unauthorized Third PartyPHI is shared with individuals or organizations without the necessary authorization, violating HIPAA regulations and potentially leading to the misuse or exploitation of sensitive health information.
Lost Portable Electronic DeviceMisplacing a portable electronic device (e.g., smartphone, tablet) containing unencrypted PHI, putting patients’ health information at risk if accessed by unauthorized individuals.
Insider SnoopingAn employee or healthcare provider inappropriately accesses the PHI of friends, family, or acquaintances without a valid reason or proper authorization, breaching patient privacy.
Ransomware AttackMalicious software infects healthcare systems, encrypting PHI and demanding a ransom for its release, potentially disrupting patient care and compromising the security of sensitive health information.
Data Breach during System MigrationDuring the transfer of data between systems, PHI becomes exposed due to inadequate security measures, resulting in unauthorized access or disclosure of sensitive patient information.
Social EngineeringCybercriminals manipulate individuals through deception or psychological tactics to gain access to PHI or sensitive data, exploiting human vulnerabilities rather than technical vulnerabilities.
Unauthorized Disclosure on Social MediaHealthcare professionals or employees share PHI on public platforms or social media without obtaining proper authorization, breaching patient confidentiality and violating HIPAA regulations.
Hacking of Email AccountsCyber attackers gain unauthorized access to email accounts of healthcare providers, potentially compromising PHI contained within emails and attachments.
Insider TheftAn employee intentionally steals PHI with the intent to sell or misuse the information, compromising patient privacy and security.
Unsecured File SharingSharing PHI through unsecured file-sharing platforms or cloud services, where unauthorized individuals can gain access to sensitive health information.
Physical Break-InIntruders gain unauthorized entry into a healthcare facility and access physical records containing PHI, jeopardizing patient privacy and potentially leading to identity theft or fraud.
Third-Party Vendor BreachPHI is compromised due to a data breach experienced by a third-party vendor or business associate responsible for handling or storing healthcare data.
Unauthorized Access via Weak PasswordsWeak or easily guessable passwords allow unauthorized individuals to gain access to systems or accounts containing PHI, bypassing security measures and potentially exposing sensitive information.
Data Leakage through EmailInadvertently sending PHI to the wrong recipient via email or using insecure email protocols, resulting in the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive health information.
Insider SabotageAn employee intentionally alters or deletes PHI, disrupting patient care, compromising data integrity, and violating HIPAA regulations.

Figure: Examples of HIPAA Breaches


A HIPAA breach refers to any unauthorized acquisition, access, use, or disclosure of protected health information (PHI) that compromises its security or privacy. A breach can occur in various forms, including accidental or intentional incidents, such as a lost or stolen laptop, improper disposal of PHI, unauthorized access by an employee, hacking, or unauthorized sharing of PHI with third parties without proper authorization. A breach is considered to have occurred when there is a significant risk of compromised PHI, and it must be reported and addressed in accordance with HIPAA regulations. In the event of a breach, covered entities and business associates are required to conduct a thorough investigation, mitigate any harm caused, notify affected individuals, and take steps to prevent similar breaches in the future.

3 Steps To HIPAA Compliance

Step 1 : Download Checklist.

Step 2 : Review Your Business

Step 3 : Get Compliant!

Our HIPAA compliance checklist will outline everything your organization needs to become fully HIPAA compliant. Fill in the form below to download it now.

View our privacy policy