Understanding HIPAA: Security Incidents vs. Breaches

In the bustling world of healthcare, where sensitive patient data flows constantly, one wrong move can trigger a domino effect of panic and legal consequences. Understanding the crucial distinction between security incidents and security breaches can help protect sensitive patient information.

In this blog, we’ll define both "security incidents" and "security breaches," look at real-world examples of both, and examine their impact on HIPAA compliance.

Security Incident

Definition: A security incident is described as an event that compromises the integrity, confidentiality, or availability of an information asset.


  • Can be malicious or inadvertent.
  • Can originate from within or outside a healthcare organization.
  • Not limited to technology; for instance, failing to properly dispose of hardcopy records can also constitute a security incident.

Data Breach

Definition: A data breach is defined as an impermissible use or disclosure under the HIPAA Privacy Rule that compromises the security or privacy of the protected health information (PHI).


  • Often more severe than a general security incident.
  • Involves unauthorized access or disclosure of PHI.

So, while a security incident is a broader term that encompasses any security-related event, a security breach is a subset of incidents that involve the actual unauthorized access or disclosure of PHI.

Data Breach Prevention Methods

  • Risk Assessment: Regularly conducting thorough risk assessments to identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities in the healthcare system.
  • Staff Training: Providing continuous education and training for staff on HIPAA compliance and data security best practices.
  • Policy Implementation: Developing and implementing robust security policies and procedures tailored to the organization’s specific needs.
  • Technical Safeguards: Utilizing advanced security technologies such as encryption, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems to protect data integrity and confidentiality.
  • Regular Audits: Conducting periodic audits to ensure compliance with policies and identify areas for improvement.

Healthcare Incident Response Methods

In response to security incidents and data breaches, the following steps are a great place to start:

  • Incident Identification: Promptly identifying and assessing the scope of the incident to determine the appropriate response.
  • Containment and Mitigation: Taking immediate actions to contain the incident and mitigate potential damage, including technical measures and notifying relevant stakeholders.
  • Notification and Reporting: Adhering to legal requirements for notifying affected individuals and reporting to authorities as mandated by HIPAA.
  • Investigation and Analysis: Conducting a thorough investigation to understand the cause and extent of the breach.
  • Documentation and Review: Meticulously documenting the incident and response actions, followed by a review to refine future response strategies and prevent recurrence.

Real-World Examples of Recent Data Breaches

Walmart Associates Health and Welfare Plan

Walmart Associates Health and Welfare Plan, a covered entity (CE), reported a cybersecurity incident by a vendor of its business associate (BA), impacting the protected health information (PHI) of around 85,952 individuals. The compromised PHI included personal details like names, addresses, birth dates, and health insurance data. Following the incident, the CE informed HHS, the affected parties, and the media and also issued substitute notices. To enhance data security, the BA and its vendor have now reinforced their technical safeguards.

United Bankshares, Inc.

United Bankshares, a business associate (BA), reported a cyber-attack compromising the protected health information (PHI) of 8,801 individuals. This breach included sensitive data such as names, addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, driver's license details, diagnoses, lab results, medication, claims, financial, and other treatment information. The BA informed HHS, the media, and the affected individuals and issued substitute notices. To strengthen data protection, United Bankshares upgraded with manufacturer-provided software patches and enhanced technical safeguards.

Physicians Insurance: A Mutual Company

A business associate (BA) reported a data breach affecting 1,852 individuals due to an email phishing attack on an employee. The compromised protected health information (PHI) included names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, health insurance details, and other treatment data. In response, the BA informed HHS, the impacted parties, and the media, offering complimentary credit monitoring services. Additionally, they have strengthened their data security with new administrative and technical safeguards.

Learn how to stay in compliance with HIPAA regulations and avoid these unfortunate situations with our HIPAA for Healthcare Workers Course. This targeted program equips you with the essential knowledge and practical skills to safeguard patient privacy. Learn how to identify and report potential security risks, handle protected health information (PHI) responsibly, and navigate HIPAA's intricate requirements in the context of your daily duties. By mastering these fundamentals, you become a champion of patient privacy, fostering a trustworthy and secure healthcare environment.

We also offer a HIPAA for Business Associates Course. This comprehensive program delves deep into the specific obligations and responsibilities placed upon business associates under HIPAA. Understand the contractual requirements, data security measures, and breach notification procedures that are vital for ensuring your organization's compliance. By equipping yourself with this knowledge, you become a vital partner in safeguarding patient information and contribute to a robust healthcare ecosystem.

By enrolling in these specialized courses, you will not only increase your own understanding of HIPAA. You’ll also actively contribute to a safer, more secure healthcare environment. Head to our website to get started today!