Are HIPAA Violations Medical Malpractice?

When you go to the hospital, you’re putting a lot of trust in the people who work there. You’re not just trusting the healthcare professionals to care for you at your most vulnerable. You’re also trusting the entire organization and its employees to respect your rights, personal autonomy, and privacy. 

Hospital employees have an ethical duty to honor that trust. They also have a legal obligation to protect your privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The problem is that not every hospital, medical professional, or employee will abide by the law. When they violate HIPAA, you may suffer because of their actions. 

It’s easy to assume that these HIPAA violations are medical malpractice. After all, they are legal violations that occur in a healthcare context. However, these two elements of law are often very different. Here’s how HIPAA violations and medical malpractice differ, the rare occasions where they overlap, and how to tell which type of claim you need to file if a hospital harms you. 

What Is a HIPAA Violation? 

HIPAA is the law that created national standards for how patients’ health information can be shared. Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, health professionals, healthcare providers, insurance companies, and any other business that handles protected health information (PHI) are considered “covered entities.” 

All covered entities must receive the patient’s consent before sharing, transmitting, or otherwise disclosing their PHI with others. The only exceptions are for public interest and benefit activities like anonymized statistical reports or treatment, payment, and healthcare operations. 

A HIPAA violation occurs when a covered entity shares PHI without the patient’s consent. This puts their information in the hands of an unapproved party, violating their privacy and potentially putting them at risk.

Examples of HIPAA Violations

There are many ways to violate HIPAA, including:

  • Telling stories about a patient that include identifying information. This can involve gossiping about a patient or publishing case reports that aren’t properly anonymized.
  • Snooping on someone’s medical records without consent or a valid healthcare reason. People may do this to steal a patient’s identity or out of misplaced curiosity.
  • Failing to encrypt or protect PHI from unapproved parties. There are many ways this can happen, but they all lead to unauthorized people accessing the files. 
  • Refusing to grant patients access to their own health records. With very few exceptions, patients always have the right to see their records.

What Is Medical Malpractice?

Where HIPAA violations are very specific breaches of privacy, medical malpractice is broad. Healthcare providers commit malpractice when they fail to uphold standards of care and cause a patient harm. 

Standards of care refer to the basic expectations for safe and responsible medical treatment. They include things like using sterile supplies, confirming what procedure to perform before treating a patient, and verifying a patient’s identity before treating them. 

Medical providers are expected to meet these standards when actively treating patients; failing to do so is considered malpractice. However, patients experiencing complications or unintended side effects from treatment are not necessarily the result of malpractice. Medical care carries inherent risks, which patients accept when they seek treatment. As a result, only harm caused by a provider’s failure to meet standards of care is grounds for a malpractice claim. 

Examples of Medical Malpractice

Malpractice covers a wide range of potential injuries, but some of the most common include:

  • Surgical errors like leaving medical supplies in the body cavity after surgery
  • Treatment errors like administering a medication to which a patient is allergic
  • Diagnostic errors like failing to identify a stroke or heart attack despite easily-identifiable symptoms

HIPAA Violations vs. Medical Malpractice

While the same people and organizations can commit both HIPAA violations and medical malpractice, they are very different issues. Malpractice requires explicity harm to the patient, while privacy breaches do not. 

In fact, a healthcare organization can be liable for breaching HIPAA without actually exposing PHI to unauthorized parties. In contrast, if a healthcare worker doesn’t meet standards of care but no harm results, they cannot be liable for malpractice. 

Since these two types of harm are so different, they rarely overlap. However, in rare cases, it can be argued that following HIPAA regulations is considered a basic standard of care. Specifically, healthcare workers who also handle PHI as a part of their job may be liable for malpractice if they violate HIPAA. For example, a pharmacist who discloses a patient’s prescription information to an unapproved party could be committing malpractice.  

Additionally, a medical organization may breach HIPAA during a malpractice lawsuit. You have the right to access your medical records upon request as long as the organization storing them still has them on file. However, some healthcare providers may attempt to delay giving you this information if it would work against them in a lawsuit. That’s a HIPAA violation and may be grounds for additional damages in your original claim. 

Ask an Expert Medical Malpractice Lawyer About Your Case

If you’re unsure about what type of claim you may have, don’t hesitate to get help. You can talk to the expert attorneys at the Law Offices of Michael Oran, APC, to learn whether you’ve experienced medical malpractice or a HIPAA violation. Our team has over 30 years of experience helping malpractice victims in Los Angeles. We are deeply familiar with federal, state, and case law surrounding these claims. We can help you determine whether your rights have been violated and how to hold medical providers accountable. In addition, our team can help you get access to your records for your lawsuit if your healthcare provider is violating HIPAA. Learn more about how our firm can help you by scheduling your case review today.

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