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  • Writer's pictureErin Hackett

5 Essential Steps to Responding to a Suspected Health Information Data Breach in Healthcare Services

Imagine this: It's a typical morning at your healthcare practice. The coffee's brewing and the hum of a new day fills the air. As you settle into your office, ready to tackle the day's challenges, you do what you've done countless times before – you load up your work emails. But today, something catches your eye, sending a chill down your spine. Your heart quickens as you realise this may be the beginning of a storm you never wished to face: a potential health information data breach.

In the age of digital information, the security and privacy of health data are paramount. The ramifications of a breach involving sensitive health information ripple far and wide, impacting not only patients but also the healthcare providers entrusted with their care. To proficiently handle a health information data breach, it's imperative to grasp its definition and be well-versed in the actions to take when you suspect such an incident.

What is a Health Information Data Breach?

A health information data breach occurs when there is unauthorised access to, disclosure of, or loss of client information that poses a genuine risk of harm to the individuals involved. This includes instances where:

  • Unauthorised access or sharing of information could likely result in serious harm to the affected individuals.

  • Information is lost in a way that unauthorised access or sharing might occur, and this could likely lead to serious harm to the individuals it pertains to.

Data breaches can take various forms, such as:

  1. Lost or Stolen Devices: Misplaced or stolen devices containing personal information.

  2. Illegal Access to Databases (Hacking): Intrusion by unauthorised individuals into digital databases.

  3. Staff Accessing or Sharing Data Outside Their Authorisation: Employees accessing or sharing data beyond their authorised scope.

  4. Stolen Documents: Physical documents stolen from premises or disposal bins.

  5. Sending Information to the Wrong Recipient: Accidental information sharing with individuals not intended to receive it.

  6. Deception: Individuals deceiving the healthcare service into improperly sharing someone else's data.

Responding to a Suspected Data Breach

If your healthcare service suspects an eligible data breach, the following response framework should be employed:

Step 1: Contain the Breach and Preliminary Assessment

The immediate response involves containing the breach, such as stopping unauthorised practices, recovering records, or shutting down breached systems.

Step 2: Evaluate the Risks

An assessment of the risks associated with the breach is necessary. This includes:

  • The type of personal information involved.

  • The context of the affected information and the breach.

  • The cause and extent of the breach.

  • The risk of serious harm to affected individuals.

  • The risk of other potential harms.

Step 3: Notification

Each incident should be evaluated individually to determine whether breach notification is warranted. Notification should occur if it meets the following criteria:

  • Unauthorised access or disclosure of personal information has taken place (or information is lost in circumstances where unauthorised access or disclosure is likely).

  • Such access or disclosure is likely to seriously harm any of the individuals to whom the information relates.

  • Preventing the likely risk of serious harm with remedial action has been unsuccessful.

Step 4: Preventing Future Breaches

After taking immediate steps to mitigate risks, a comprehensive investigation into the cause of the breach should be carried out. This may include a review of the existing information security plan to prevent future breaches.

Notification to Clients and OAIC

When notification is deemed necessary, a statement must be prepared for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), with a summary provided to the affected and at-risk clients as soon as possible. The notification statement should include:

  • Contact details for your healthcare service, including the Privacy Officer or another appropriate contact person.

  • A description of the data breach.

  • Details about the type of information involved in the breach.

  • Actions your healthcare service has taken in response to the breach.

  • Recommendations for actions individuals could take in response to the breach.

  • Information about whether the breach has been notified to other external contacts.

The OAIC encourages a timely initial notification, followed by a more detailed one as the breach is managed, and notifications should be submitted to the OAIC using the Notifiable Data Breach form online.

There you have it: data breaches in a nutshell. Understanding what constitutes a health information data breach and your responsibilities in responding to such incidents is crucial in maintaining the security and trust of your clients and community. Swift and systematic actions are essential as they can help mitigate potential harm and protect your patients and your organisation.

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