The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.
Not long ago I was at an ambulance service for a HIPAA project when one of their paramedics asked what the odds were that his employer would get a HIPAA fine if he talked about one of his patients. I replied that the odds of a HIPAA penalty were very slim compared to him losing his state-issued paramedic license, that would cost him his job and his career. He could also be sued. He had never thought of these risks.
Doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, nurses, EMT’s, paramedics, social workers, mental health counselors, and pharmacists, are just some of the professions that have to abide by confidentiality requirements to keep their licenses.
License and ethical requirements have required patient and client confidentiality long before HIPAA and other confidentiality laws went into effect. HIPAA became effective in 2003, 26 years after I became a New York State certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Way back in 1977, the very first EMT class I took talked about my responsibility to keep patient information confidential, or I would risk losing my certification.
While licensed professionals may not talk about an individual patient or client, weak cybersecurity controls could cause a breach of ALL of their patient and client information – instantly.
Most certified and licensed professionals will agree that they are careful not to talk about patients and clients, but how well do they secure their data? Are their laptops encrypted? Are security patches and updates current? Do they have a business-class firewall protecting their network? Do they have IT security professionals managing their technology?
Lawyers have been sanctioned for breaching confidentiality. Therapists have lost their licenses. In one well-publicized case a psychologist lost his license when a prostitute stole his laptop. In rare cases a confidentiality breach will result in a jail sentence, along with the loss of a license.
Cyber Security Ethics Requirements
Lawyers are bound by ethical rules that apply to confidentiality and competence. The competence requirements typically restrict lawyers from taking cases in unfamiliar areas of the law. However, The American Bar Association has published model guidance that attorneys not competent in the area of cyber security must hire professionals to help them secure their data.
The State Bar of North Dakota adopted technology amendments to its ethics rules in early 2016. The State Bar of Wisconsin has published a guide entitled Cybersecurity and SCR Rules of Professional Conduct. In 2014, The New York State Bar Association adopted Social Media Ethics Guidelines. Lawyers violating these ethical requirements can be sanctioned or disbarred.
A State Bar of Arizona ethics opinion said “an attorney must either have the competence to evaluate the nature of the potential threat to the client’s electronic files and to evaluate and deploy appropriate computer hardware and software to accomplish that end, or if the attorney lacks or cannot reasonably obtain that competence, to retain an expert consultant who does have such competence.”
Some licensed professionals argue that their ethical and industry requirements mean they don’t have to comply with other requirements. Ethical obligations do not trump federal and state laws. Lawyers defending health care providers in malpractice cases are HIPAA Business Associates. Doctors that have to comply with HIPAA also must adhere to state data breach laws. Psychiatric counselors, substance abuse therapists, pharmacists, and HIV treatment providers have to comply with multiple federal and state confidentiality laws in addition to their license requirements.
There are some exemptions from confidentiality laws and license requirements when it comes to reporting child abuse, notifying law enforcement when a patient becomes a threat, and in some court proceedings.
While the odds of a federal penalty for a confidentiality breach are pretty slim, it is much more likely that someone will complain to your licensing board and kill your career. Don’t take the chance after all you have gone through to earn your license.
About Mike Semel
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.