Medical Residents and HIPAA Violations

HIPAA Privacy Rules Apply to Medical Residents

Medical residents are generally familiar with HIPAA laws, as well they need to be. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the HIPAA Privacy Rule it engendered are certainly a routine part of medical school clinical education. The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards to protect individual medical records and other individually identifiable health information. Medical privacy is a significant patient interest. Breaches of medical privacy can lead to embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, relationship disruption, job loss, and other serious harms. HIPAA's Privacy Rule rightly requires healthcare organizations and providers to respect and protect patient privacy around their medical records, including electronic records. HIPAA's Privacy Rule permits medical residents and other trainees to access protected health information, but the HIPAA laws still protect that information. Medical residents are generally aware of those HIPAA requirements, although still learning their protocols and conventions.

HIPAA Privacy Violations Can Occur in Medical Residency

Because medical residents are still learning the customs, protocols, and conventions of medical practice, medical residents can face special risks of unknowingly committing HIPAA privacy violations. Those risks include things like reviewing records without medical cause to do so, leaving records in insecure locations, transmitting records or giving electronic access to records to those who don't need them, or sharing health information with family members without patient authorization. One slip of the tongue or one poorly timed keystroke on the computer can lead to a HIPAA violation. A HIPAA journal reports these special HIPAA violation risks:

  • Providers making unnecessary disclosures of protected health information
  • Providers disposing of protected health information in an insecure manner
  • Providers snooping through patient records without grounds for doing so
  • Organizations not regularly assessing HIPAA violations risks
  • Organizations not promptly addressing unreasonable HIPAA risks
  • Denying patients access to their own health records
  • Delaying access beyond a reasonable time
  • Failing to restrict vendors with business-associate HIPAA agreements
  • Failing to maintain adequate controls over electronic health information
  • Failing to encrypt health information on portable electronic devices
  • Failing to notify patients of breaches of their HIPAA privacy rights within the sixty-day window

The Threat of HIPAA Enforcement Actions

Hospitals, clinics, and other sites employing medical residents take their obligations very seriously to respect patient HIPAA privacy rights. They must do so because they face federal review and enforcement actions. See, for example, this list of 2020-2021 enforcement actions resulting in penalties into the millions of dollars in many cases. In one notorious case, for example, the UCLA Hospitals system paid an $865,000 fine relating to a physician who allegedly snooped through celebrity medical records. The Department of Health & Human Services' Office of Civil Rights (OCR) may hold both the healthcare organization and healthcare provider civilly or criminally liable. Some OCR enforcement actions involve patient complaints, but the OCR also conducts compliance reviews and will punish for potential, not just actual, violations. Depending on the type and seriousness of the violation, HIPAA sanctions can include civil penalties up to $50,000 per violation, criminal fines up to $250,000, and imprisonment for up to ten years. The OCR can also seek an order excluding the covered healthcare organization from participating in Medicare reimbursement, effectively shuttering the organization. If you face HIPAA violation allegations as a medical resident, respect your employer's interest in ensuring that it complies with HIPAA requirements. Get the help of national student defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm student defense team to fight HIPAA charges.

HIPAA Standards for Medical Residents

Your medical residency site will require that you comply with HIPAA laws. Your medical residency handbook will very likely include professionalism standards requiring that you comply with all applicable laws. Your residency handbook will probably also specifically mention HIPAA laws. If your residency program handbook does not refer to HIPAA laws, other policies and procedures at your residency site will surely do so. Consider these examples of residency program handbooks specifically requiring that residents meet HIPAA requirements:

Employment Termination for HIPAA Violations

Unfortunately, physicians and other healthcare workers, including medical residents, can face termination for HIPAA violations. See, for example, this HIPAA journal's list of examples of healthcare workers whose employers terminated their employment to bring the organization back into HIPAA compliance. Also, see this report of a medical resident whose employer medical center dismissed her for alleged HIPAA violations. The medical center had alleged that on three consecutive dates, the resident physician had accessed and reviewed medical records for a patient who was not under her care. Medical residency programs will enforce HIPAA laws right up to non-renewal and termination of the resident's employment.

Defending Medical Resident HIPAA Allegations

If you face allegations in your medical residency program that you violated HIPAA privacy rules, you should have a fair opportunity to defend and defeat those allegations, preserving your residency. Your medical residency program will likely have a grievance procedure enabling you to learn what the program alleges and to respond to those allegations, proving them false, unfair, exaggerated, or unsupported. The University of Missouri's Graduate Medical Education Grievance Policy for Residents is an example. The University of Missouri's policy enables the resident physician who faces discipline up to non-renewal or termination to require the program to convene a panel to hear and decide the charges. You very likely have an administrative procedure available to you to challenge your potential dismissal from the residency program. Even if such a procedure is not apparently available to you, skilled and experienced defense attorney representation may result in alternative relief through oversight channels.

Medical Resident Defense Available

As a medical resident, you know the enormous investment you have made to get as far as you have. Don't unnecessarily risk that investment when facing HIPAA professionalism charges. Instead, retain premier medical resident defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm's student defense team for your aggressive and effective defense. Attorney Lento has successfully represented hundreds of college and university students nationwide. Let attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm team defend and defeat false, unfair, exaggerated, and unsupported charges. No matter the stage of your proceeding, attorney Lento may also negotiate with school oversight officials for alternative resolutions that preserve your education. Get the help you need. Call 888.535.3686 or go online now.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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