Healthcare News & Insights

Preventing medical identity theft: How doctors can help

Medical information is one of the most coveted pieces of data for cybercriminals, because medical identity theft is so lucrative. However, many patients aren’t familiar with the threat and aren’t taking steps to prevent it. 

Electronic health records from a single patient can earn criminals $50 on the black market, according to data reported at last year’s Digital Health Conference in New York City. That’s a lot more than what’s paid for other information commonly used in identity theft, such as Social Security numbers ($3), credit card information ($1.50) and date of birth ($3).

Why is health information so valuable? According to the Federal Trade Commission, that data can be used to file lucrative false insurance claims, buy prescription drugs and get health care at the victim’s expense, among other things.

Those cases of medical identity theft not only cause financial damage for patients, but there are also risks for doctors as well, according to the American Medical Association. Physicians may be subject to fines under HIPAA for failing to protect patient information. Also, there is a risk of medical errors or other mistakes when two people use the same identity to receive care. Victims of medical identity theft could also lose faith in their doctor and leave for a different provider.

In addition to protecting patient information in both digital and paper form as best as possible, doctors can help avoid serious damage by catching cases of medical identity theft early. Unfortunately, patients aren’t adept at detecting identity theft, according to a survey from Nationwide Insurance.

Among the 2,000 people surveyed, just 15% were familiar with the term “medical identity theft,” just 32% think it’s likely their medical information will be stolen, and only 24% have checked their medical records for signs of fraud.

Doctors can help by educating their patients about the threat and encouraging them to check for warning signs. Practices and hospitals can also take some steps on their own, including:

  1. Ask for two pieces of identification from unfamiliar patients — including an insurance card and photo ID
  2. Look for inconsistencies in the patient record, including records from visits with other clinicians when access to those are available, and
  3. Review Medicare remittance notices to look for services that were never performed.

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