The HIPAA Privacy Rule requires that covered entities apply appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect the privacy of protected health information (PHI), in any form. See 45 CFR 164.530(c). This means that covered entities must implement reasonable safeguards to limit incidental, and avoid prohibited, uses and disclosures of PHI, including in connection with the disposal of such information. In addition, the HIPAA Security Rule requires that covered entities implement policies and procedures to address the final disposition of electronic PHI and/or the hardware or electronic media on which it is stored, as well as to implement procedures for removal of electronic PHI from electronic media before the media are made available for re-use. See 45 CFR 164.310(d)(2)(i) and (ii). Failing to implement reasonable safeguards to protect PHI in connection with disposal could result in impermissible disclosures of PHI.
Further, covered entities must ensure that their workforce members receive training on and follow the disposal policies and procedures of the covered entity, as necessary and appropriate for each workforce member. See 45 CFR 164.306(a)(4), 164.308(a)(5), and 164.530(b) and (i). Therefore, any workforce member involved in disposing of PHI, or who supervises others who dispose of PHI, must receive training on disposal. This includes any volunteers. See 45 CFR 160.103 (definition of “workforce”).
Thus, covered entities are not permitted to simply abandon PHI or dispose of it in dumpsters or other containers that are accessible by the public or other unauthorized persons. However, the Privacy and Security Rules do not require a particular disposal method. Covered entities must review their own circumstances to determine what steps are reasonable to safeguard PHI through disposal, and develop and implement policies and procedures to carry out those steps. In determining what is reasonable, covered entities should assess potential risks to patient privacy, as well as consider such issues as the form, type, and amount of PHI to be disposed. For instance, the disposal of certain types of PHI such as name, social security number, driver’s license number, debit or credit card number, diagnosis, treatment information, or other sensitive information may warrant more care due to the risk that inappropriate access to this information may result in identity theft, employment or other discrimination, or harm to an individual’s reputation.
In general, examples of proper disposal methods may include, but are not limited to:
- For PHI in paper records, shredding, burning, pulping, or pulverizing the records so that PHI is rendered essentially unreadable, indecipherable, and otherwise cannot be reconstructed.
- Maintaining labeled prescription bottles and other PHI in opaque bags in a secure area and using a disposal vendor as a business associate to pick up and shred or otherwise destroy the PHI.
- For PHI on electronic media, clearing (using software or hardware products to overwrite media with non-sensitive data), purging (degaussing or exposing the media to a strong magnetic field in order to disrupt the recorded magnetic domains), or destroying the media (disintegration, pulverization, melting, incinerating, or shredding).
For more information on proper disposal of electronic PHI, see the HHS HIPAA Security Series 3: Security Standards – Physical Safeguards. In addition, for practical information on how to handle sanitization of PHI throughout the information life cycle, readers may consult NIST SP 800-88, Guidelines for Media Sanitization.
Other methods of disposal also may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. Covered entities are encouraged to consider the steps that other prudent health care and health information professionals are taking to protect patient privacy in connection with record disposal. In addition, if a covered entity is winding up a business, the covered entity may wish to consider giving patients the opportunity to pick up their records prior to any disposition by the covered entity (and note that many states may impose requirements on covered entities to retain and make available for a limited time, as appropriate, medical records after dissolution of a business).