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HHS: Patient Data Breaches Have More Than Doubled

Better adherence to federal breach disclosure policies may explain the severe uptick in notifications in 2010, Department of Health and Human Services tells Congress.

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Health organizations notified approximately 5.4 million individuals affected by patient health data breaches in 2010, compared to approximately 2.4 million individuals in 2009. This according to a report recently sent by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to Congress.

The annual report, which was recently submitted to several Senate and House committees, outlines the number and type of breaches reported to HHS and documents the actions taken in response to those breaches. The document examines the 45 breaches reported during the approximately three-month reporting period in calendar year 2009 (September 23, 2009, to December 31, 2009) and 207 reports in calendar year 2010, the first full calendar year for reporting.

The report comes several months after the HHS office of inspector general published two audits that highlighted the difficulties healthcare delivery organizations are facing in their efforts to protect sensitive patient information.

HHS' latest report to Congress revealed that in 2010 theft was the most common cause of large breach incidents that affected 500 or more individuals. Among the 207 breaches that covered entities such as healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses reported last year, 99 incidents involved theft of paper records or electronic media, combined affecting approximately 3 million individuals.

Of those 99 incidents, the largest affected approximately 1.9 million individuals and involved theft of backup tapes that contained electronic medical records as they were being transported by a vendor from the covered entity to the vendor's site. Additionally, 42 of the reported incidents involved the theft of laptops, while 21 involved theft of desktop computers from onsite locations. Other thefts involved stolen smartphones, flash drives, desktop computers, and a network server, the report noted.

[Which healthcare organizations came out ahead in the InformationWeek 500 competition? See 10 Healthcare IT Innovators: InformationWeek 500.]

"You would naturally expect to see a correlation in the uptick of electronic data theft and the adoption of electronic health records. The more individuals' health records are in electronic form, the more of a possibility that even one particular breach would cover a bigger number of records," Lisa Gallagher, senior director of privacy and security at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, (HIMSS) told InformationWeek Healthcare.

In 2010, the second highest number of data breaches involved the loss of electronic media or paper records, with 33 reported cases that affected more than 1 million individuals. There were 31 breaches that involved unauthorized access to, or uses or disclosures of, protected health information that affected approximately 1 million individuals. Other breaches included 19 incidents resulting from human or technological errors that affected approximately 78,663 individuals. Eleven covered entities reported breaches caused by the improper disposal of protected health information that affected approximately 70,000 individuals.

In Gallagher's view, the increasing number of incidents could mean that the policies and procedures coming from HHS are encouraging the healthcare industry to do a better job of detecting and reporting breaches.

The HHS concurred. "The breach notification requirements are achieving their twin objectives of increasing public transparency in cases of breach and increasing accountability of covered entities," the HHS report stated. Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, covered entities and business associates are required to provide notification to affected individuals, the HHS secretary, and in some cases the media following the discovery of a breach of unsecured protected health information.

Find out how health IT leaders are dealing with the industry's pain points, from allowing unfettered patient data access to sharing electronic records. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: There needs to be better e-communication between technologists and clinicians. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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