PHI and PII: Protecting Personal Information

Working With Documents Containing PII and PHI

As businesses and organizations navigate the complex world of data privacy, it’s essential to understand the differences between Protected Health Information (PHI) and Personally Identifiable Information (PII). In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive deep into the distinctions between the two, how they are regulated, and the best practices for safeguarding sensitive data.

Defining PHI and PII

What is Protected Health Information (PHI)?

Protected Health Information (PHI) refers to any information related to an individual’s health status, healthcare provision, or payment for healthcare services. This data is typically collected, stored, and transmitted by healthcare providers and insurance companies. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets the guidelines for the proper handling of PHI in the United States.

What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)?

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is any information that can be used to identify, locate, or contact a specific individual. PII can include both sensitive and non-sensitive data. Examples of PII include your name, your social security number, and mailing address. Even your email and phone number are considered PII. PII is regulated by various privacy laws and standards worldwide, such as the Privacy Act in the US and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union.

Regulations Governing PHI and PII

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

HIPAA sets the standard for the protection of PHI in the United States. It applies to healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses, also known as “covered entities,” and their business associates. HIPAA mandates the implementation of physical, technical, and administrative safeguards to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

The GDPR is a comprehensive data protection regulation that applies to organizations operating within the European Union or processing personal data of EU citizens. GDPR has a broader scope than HIPAA, as it covers all personal data, including PII. It requires organizations to implement data protection principles, uphold individuals’ rights, and adhere to strict rules for data processing and transfer.

Examples of PHI and PII

Common PHI Examples

  • Medical records and patient charts
  • Billing information
  • Health insurance policy numbers
  • Test results and diagnoses
  • Prescriptions

Common PII Examples

  • Full name
  • Social security number
  • Passport number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Email address and phone number

Best Practices for Protecting PHI and PII

Implement a Strong Data Security Policy

Develop and enforce a data security policy that includes guidelines for data collection, storage, and sharing. Ensure that employees are trained on the policy and understand their responsibilities.

Encrypt Data

Use encryption for both storing and transmitting PHI and PII to to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data. This includes encrypting data at rest and in transit.

Apply Access Controls

Implement access controls to limit access to PHI and PII. Grant access only on a need-to-know basis and regularly review and update access permissions.

Perform Regular Risk Assessments

Conduct periodic risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities and threats to PHI and PII. Implement appropriate measures to address the identified risks and ensure ongoing compliance with relevant regulations.

Maintain Audit Trails

Establish comprehensive audit trails for all activities involving PHI and PII. This includes tracking data access, modifications, and deletions. Regularly review audit logs to detect and investigate any suspicious activities and to ensure a secure chain of custody is maintained.

Implement a Data Breach Response Plan

Develop a well-defined data breach response plan that outlines the steps to be taken in the event of a security incident. This plan should include procedures for detecting, containing, and mitigating breaches, as well as notifying affected individuals and relevant authorities.

A Note About Digitizing Your Records

Securely digitizing your records with a HIPAA compliant document scanning service makes it incredibly easy implement most these PII and PHI best practices.

That’s because electronic records can be protected with passwords and multi-factor authentication, as well as encrypted to protect data from unauthorized access.

Speaking of access, establishing an audit trail when working with digital files is a breeze. You can record every access to a particular document and store that information digitally. Plus, working digitally enables backups and recovery, ensuring data safety in case of disasters.

Managing Data Breaches

Detect and Contain the Breach

Upon detecting a data breach, take immediate action to contain the incident and prevent further unauthorized access or data loss. This may involve disconnecting affected systems, revoking access credentials, or implementing additional security measures.

Assess the Impact

Determine the scope and severity of the breach, including the types of PHI and PII affected and the number of individuals impacted. Evaluate the potential risks and consequences associated with the breach, such as identity theft, financial loss, or damage to reputation.

Notify Affected Parties and Authorities

Depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the breach, notify affected individuals and relevant regulatory authorities in a timely manner. Provide clear and accurate information about the breach, including steps taken to address the issue and recommended actions for affected individuals.

Review and Improve Security Measures

Conduct a thorough post-incident analysis to identify the root cause of the breach and implement appropriate measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. This may involve updating security policies, enhancing access controls, or providing additional employee training.

What Comes Next?

Understanding the differences between PHI and PII is crucial for any organization that handles sensitive personal data. By implementing the proper data security practices and adhering to relevant regulations, organizations can effectively safeguard PHI and PII, minimize the risk of data breaches, and maintain trust with their clients and customers.

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