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HIPAA Breach Investigations – What You Should Know

Posted on September 5, 2018 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Moazzam Adnan Raja, Vice President of Marketing at Atlantic.Net.

Correctly handling a HIPAA breach recovery will benefit from a well-prepared and systematic approach. Investigation is one of a few key elements to consider, alongside speed, notification, and risk assessment. The specific issue of time deserves closer examination, as does the incorporation of risk management and auditing processes.

4 pillars of HIPAA breach response

Here are four key elements or pillars of a strong HIPAA breach response, a framework provided by Brach Eichler healthcare attorney Lani M. Dornfeld, that can be helpful in guiding your own response, as well as setting expectations with your healthcare hosts and other business associates:

Speed – Moving rapidly in response to a breach is fundamental to limiting the damage. Put together an investigation and response team, which should include the HIPAA security officer and HIPAA privacy officer, along with an attorney as necessary. You may want to standardly include your attorneys, along with members of a HIPAA compliance committee, if your organization is larger and requires more sophisticated oversight. The board of trustees and board of directors could also be included.

Investigation – The way that an investigation is conducted will depend heavily on the nature and scope of the breach. There is, of course, the issue of responsibility to patients but also liability to the organization. For the latter, Dornfeld noted, “If cloaking the investigation in the attorney-client privilege will be to your strategic advantage, then you will need to be counseled about how to manage the flow of information to maintain the privilege.” Breaches often occur because of internal errors by your staff, such as disclosure without proper authorization (e.g., telling a friend confidential patient information) or accidental disclosure to the incorrect party (e.g., sending a letter to the wrong address). Incredibly, insiders are responsible for more than half (58%) of healthcare breaches impacting electronic protected health information (ePHI), per a study released in March by Verizon. When breaches occur due to the insider threat, at the minimum, you want to conduct private interviews with relevant parties, with another person there to assist in asking questions and determining perceived honesty. Beyond what you are able to glean from interviews, it will also help to get any supporting evidence – which may include copies of social media posts, letters, or emails, as well as information from the data system. (Related to investigation, see the discussion of time below.)

Notification – Letting all pertinent parties know about healthcare data breaches is critical. Notification should occur quickly and always within 60 days of breach discovery (unless advised by law enforcement that notification would problematize its own investigations), per the Breach Notification Rule. When you notify patients or others that ePHI has been exposed, your communications should be clearly worded. They should mention the specific data involved (such as lab results or Social Security numbers) and the steps the company is taking toward investigation and mitigation. It should also let the patient know what protective steps they can personally take, along with how to get further details or ask questions.

Risk assessment – After the investigation is finished, you and the legal team can use the insight from it, along with whatever you have already done toward mitigation, to conduct a HIPAA-compliant risk assessment. The risk analysis parameters from the HHS explain that a full assessment should be conducted related to any threats to the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of health data. The HHS notes that the risk analysis is an important basis of information since it can be used to guide what is considered a “reasonable and appropriate” step (the determining factor for a HIPAA-compliant approach). While HIPAA is flexible on many parameters, it mandates that risk assessments be performed routinely (related to all ePHI systems) when contracting with new business associates (related to that specific information), and when security incidents occur (related to that specific information). Any access to ePHI that is disallowed by the Privacy Rule’s subpart E must be disallowed. Any time at which health data is accessed or used in a way that is noncompliant with those guidelines will be assumed breaches – except if your risk assessment can show that there is, in fact, low likelihood of a compromise. (Related to risk assessment, see the section on risk management and audits below.)

The specific issue of time

Time should be central to investigations, as indicated by Mayer Brown healthcare attorney Laura Hammargren. There is disagreement over whether the moment of discovery of a breach should be considered the moment when you reveal a potential breach or the moment when you have finished assessing the situation and understand what occurred.

While there may still be some debate related to discovery, the law is clear at least on the parameter of 24 hours. Discovery of a breach of ePHI occurs “as of the first day on which the breach is known to the organization, or, if exercising reasonable diligence would have been known to the organization,” noted Dornfeld.

Security events are common in which it is unclear if data was compromised or not. It can take a significant amount of time to confirm whether a breach occurred, and exactly how it might have occurred. Some means of assault are incredibly complex. Attackers may make it extraordinarily challenging to track their moves – in which case it can be a painstaking task to find out the data that they possibly accessed and removed.

Another concern of a HIPAA breach investigation is figuring out the length of time the intruder had access, which can have a huge influence on the breadth of the breach.

Risk management & audits

The risk assessment is part of the larger picture of risk management. When you are approaching a healthcare data breach investigation, you will benefit from comprehensive risk management and auditing processes. Through these safeguards, you will be much readier to send out notifications promptly, as well as to give clear information to police and other law enforcement officials.

Risk management is simplified when you have strong business associate agreements (BAAs), through which your standards can extend to third parties. By working with established, next-generation, HIPAA compliant cloud storage provider, you will have peace-of-mind that risks are properly controlled, backed by third-party certifications and audits.

Atlantic.Net is a proud sponsor of EMRandHIPAA.com. Atlantic.Net provides HIPAA compliant hosting, backed by 100% uptime guarantee.

About Moazzam Adnan Raja
Moazzam Adnan Raja has been the Vice President of Marketing at Atlantic.Net for 14 years. During Raja’s tenure, the Orlando-based, privately held hosting company has grown from having a primarily regional presence to garnering and developing attention nationwide and internationally. In collaboration with a skilled and dedicated team, Raja has successfully led a full spectrum of marketing campaigns, as well as handling PR work with major news outlets and the formation of key strategic alliances.

Amazon AWS Will Sign HIPAA Business Associate Agreement

Posted on June 19, 2013 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Thanks to Ian Eslick for catching this piece of news. This is really big news, because there were a lot of companies and organizations that were building healthcare applications on the back of Amazon AWS. I’m glad that Amazon has finally put together a policy related to HIPAA.

Here’s their new section describing their compliance with HIPAA:

AWS enables covered entities and their business associates subject to the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)  to leverage the secure AWS environment to process, maintain, and store protected health information and AWS will be signing business associate agreements with such customers. AWS also offers a HIPAA-focused whitepaper for customers interested in learning more about how they can leverage AWS for the processing and storage of health information. The Creating HIPAA-Compliant Medical Data Applications with AWS whitepaper outlines how companies can use AWS to process systems that facilitate HIPAA and HITECH compliance. For more information on the AWS HIPAA compliance program please contact AWS Sales and Business Development.

Obviously the devil is in the details on this. I’ll reach out to one of my HIPAA lawyer friends to see what they think of this. If you’re a healthcare organization or vendor that’s on Amazon AWS, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. The fact that Amazon is now willing to sign a BAA is really big news and a great step forward for anyone wanting to develop an application covered by HIPAA on Amazon’s AWS.