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The only thing scarier than credit card theft? Medical identity theft

​by Michael Campana


Improve PHI privacy and healthcare data security

Time: 3 minute read
Quick word-association test: What comes to mind first when you hear the words “identity theft?”

Was “credit card” the first thing to come to mind? Chances are you didn’t think “health insurance card” or “medical records.” Yet, medical identity theft is a growing problem that can cause tremendous damage to a person’s life and his or her healthcare providers.

Not to minimize the consequences of credit card theft, as it certainly bears considerable weight on everyone involved. But while difficult and time consuming to manage, harm assumed from a stolen credit card can often be overcome. Although it may take some time and effort, it’s not impossible to recover most of the money and other financial losses from credit card theft.

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According to findings from Consumer Reports1, ramifications of stolen medical records and health insurance cards, on the other hand, often extend well beyond financial losses. Thieves who steal health insurance cards, for example, can use those cards to obtain free or discounted healthcare that they normally wouldn’t be able to get. And once this happens, the medical record of the actual card holder can be seriously impacted. If inaccurate information is included in the medical record, victims of medical identify theft can experience harm to their health, including misdiagnoses or delays in treatment.

Considering the implications of medical records theft, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

The ​ramifications of stolen medical records and health insurance cards often extend well beyond financial losses.

  • Is your hospital validating that the person presenting to them in the ER is in fact the same person as that named on the insurance card?
  • If a hospital shares health information about “Patient A” who in fact is being impersonated by “Patient B,” has that hospital committed a HIPAA violation?
  • If an impersonation is uncovered, how does a hospital balance the requirements of providing timely access to a medical record for “Patient A” while also protecting the right to privacy for imposter “Patient B” – whose health data is now part of “Patient A’s” record?
  • What are the financial impacts of performing surgery and other costly procedures on patients who really aren’t the people they claim to be?
  • Are the insurance companies still liable for those bills? If not, who is?
Unlike stolen credit cards, stolen medical records can, in reality, pose matters not just of financial security, but also of life and death. To protect your patients’ medical identity—and the well-being of your organization—it’s important to put security measures in place such as shifting from paper-based processes to electronic data storage and encrypting these systems.

Next time you hear the term “identity theft,” credit cards might not be the first item to come to mind.


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1 Diane Umansky, "Why you should worry about health care identity theft: It can harm your financial and physical health." Consumer Reports, May 15, 2015.
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