What are the Penalties for a Nurse who Violates HIPAA?

Nurses are at the front line of almost all health care services, but what sort of penalties do nurses face if they violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA?

Nurses are often under considerable pressure when dealing with patients and it is natural that accidents happen or that mistakes are made in such a fluid and hectic work environment. Dealing with members of the public, particularly when these people may be concerned, upset, stressed or otherwise under strain out of concern for their health and safety or that of a loved one, means nurses must try to efficiently balance peoples’ desire for information with patient privacy rights while also providing appropriate care to the sick and injured.

What are the Penalties for Nurses who Violate HIPAA?

As noted above, it is almost impossible for nurses to completely avoid violating HIPAA. Many employers have a certain amount of tolerance for accidental violations and may choose to not take disciplinary action directly. If it is a relatively minor transgression, the covered entity may be able to resolve the issue internally. Should such minor violations become common, training is sometimes preferred over punishment.

It is of the utmost importance that all HIPAA violations, not matter how minor, are reported to the appropriate contact. This may be a supervisor or the organization’s privacy officer if one is available. Minor violations can spark much larger problems if they are not correctly handled.

More serious violations, even if they are accidental, have a greater likelihood of leading to sanctions or punishments for the offending party. These could potentially include termination or actions taken on behalf of the relevant board of nursing. The fallout of being terminated as a result of a HIPAA violation can be quite serious, with some nurses struggling to find alternate employment with covered entities in this type of situation.

If a nurse is found to have committed a willful violation of HIPAA, for example stealing a patient’s information or using this information in a malicious fashion, then they could face criminal charges. Law enforcement could become involved and it is probable that investigations into the event will take place.

Individuals can report suspected HIPAA violations directly to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) which can in turn be referred to the Department of Justice. Punishment may include financial penalties or, rarely, custodial sentences.

HIPAA itself does not provide for a private cause of action in the case of HIPAA violations. This means nurses could not be sued for a HIPAA violation under HIPAA itself. However, some state laws may allow for such a course o be taken by patients or injured parties.

HIPAA and Social Media

Posting any Protected Health Information (PHI) to social media, including to groups with restricted members, is more than likely violating HIPAA to a serious degree. This is applicable to platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, SnapChat, and others. Videos or images that could contain PHI would also likely be prohibited.

The only way this would be permitted is if the nurse had received prior, written permission from the patient to share their PHI or image in such a manner. Even then, great care should be taken.