What is the Difference Between a Security Incident and a Breach in HIPAA?

hipaa data breach

Today, we’re tackling a critical distinction that often confuses the healthcare sector: What is the difference between a security incident and a breach under HIPAA? It’s essential for anyone in the healthcare industry, particularly those handling PHI (Protected Health Information), to understand these terms. So, let’s dive in!

Breaking Down the Basics

First up, let’s define our terms.

  1. Security Incident: This is a broad term used in HIPAA to describe an attempted or successful unauthorized access, use, disclosure, modification, or destruction of information or interference with system operations in an information system. Think of it as any activity that could threaten PHI’s security.
  2. Breach: Under HIPAA, a breach is defined more precisely. It’s an impermissible use or disclosure under the Privacy Rule that compromises the security or privacy of the PHI. Essentially, a breach is a type of security incident that results in the confirmed exposure of PHI in a way not allowed by the Privacy Rule.

The Nuances of a Security Incident

A security incident is like your healthcare data’s first line of defense. It’s an alert that something unusual is happening. Examples include:

  • A malware attack that is successfully blocked by your antivirus software.
  • Repeated failed login attempts that could indicate a brute force attack.
  • Your internal monitoring system flags an employee accessing a PHI file they don’t usually use.

Not every security incident is a breach, but every breach starts as a security incident.

When Does a Security Incident Become a Breach?

This transformation occurs when the incident results in unauthorized access to or disclosure of PHI. There are a few key factors to consider:

  • The Nature and Extent of the PHI Involved: For instance, does the data include sensitive information like social security numbers or medical histories?
  • The Unauthorized Person Who Used the PHI or to Whom the Disclosure Was Made: Was it someone within the organization without proper authorization or an external actor?
  • Whether the PHI Was Actually Acquired or Viewed: Sometimes, data may be exposed but not necessarily accessed or viewed.
  • The Extent to Which the Risk to the PHI Has Been Mitigated: For example, if an unauthorized disclosure occurs, but the recipient agrees to destroy the information and not disclose it further.

Real-World Example

Let’s put this into a real-world context. Imagine a hospital employee clicks on a phishing email, which installs malware on their system. This is a security incident. It may not be a breach if the malware encrypts files but doesn’t access or transmit PHI outside the organization. However, if the malware transmits PHI to an external party, that’s a breach.

The Importance of Prompt Response

Regardless of whether an incident is a breach, quick action is crucial. HIPAA requires covered entities to have policies and procedures in place to address security incidents. This includes:

  • Conducting a thorough investigation.
  • Mitigating the harmful effects of the incident.
  • Documenting the incident and its outcomes.
  • Notifying the necessary parties if it’s determined to be a breach.

Conclusion: Understanding Leads to Better Protection

Understanding the difference between a security incident and a breach under HIPAA is more than a compliance requirement—it’s a vital part of protecting sensitive health information. By recognizing and responding appropriately to these events, healthcare providers and their business associates can better safeguard patient data against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats.

Do you have more questions about HIPAA, data security, or how to handle potential breaches? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Blue Goat Cyber. We’re here to help you navigate the complex cybersecurity terrain with confidence.

Contact us for help with HIPAA compliance.

Blog Search

Social Media