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Tracking A Patient’s Every Move: HIPAA Compliance Risk

Tracking A Patient’s Every Move: HIPAA Compliance Risk

By: Kelli Fleming with Burr & Forman LLP

The Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (”OCR”) recently published a guidance bulletin addressing the use of online tracking technologies by entities covered by HIPAA, including but not limited physician practices. 

A tracking technology is used to collect information about how online users interact with websites or mobile applications. For example, have you ever wondered why after you search for a product on google, it automatically appears as an ad in your social media for the next few days? That is the result of a form of tracking technology. 

When used by healthcare providers, the information that is collected by way of a tracking technology may be considered protected health information (“PHI”) covered by HIPAA. If a healthcare provider utilizes a tracking technology vendor to gather and analyze information, including information about patients, the provider must ensure that the release of the information to the vendor is compliant with HIPAA and is not an impermissible use or disclosure. 

In the recent bulletin, OCR clarified that individually identifiable information “collected on a regulated entity’s website or mobile app generally is PHI, even if the individual does not have an existing relationship with the regulated entity and even if the [information] does not include specific treatment or billing information like dates and types of healthcare services.” 

Covered entities that engage a user-authenticated webpage (i.e., a website that requires a log-in) should only allow tracking technologies to use and disclose information in compliance with HIPAA, including in a secure manner. In order to comply with HIPAA, the covered entity must either enter in a Business Associate Agreement (“BAA”) with the vendor, or obtain patient authorization for such use and/or disclosure. Disclosing PHI to tracking technology vendors based solely on informing individuals of such use in the website’s privacy policy or terms of use is not sufficient, nor is merely accepting or rejecting cookie use. There must be either a valid, HIPAA compliant patient authorization or a BAA, and the use and/or disclosure must be permissible under HIPAA. For example, a disclosure to a tracking vendor for marketing purposes, without an authorization, would be impermissible. 

Covered entities using a website that is not user-authenticated (i.e., does not require a log-in) need to determine if any of the information obtained by the tracking vendor would be individually identifiable and constitute PHI. If so, a BAA and compliance with HIPAA would be required. However, the determination as to whether or not PHI is being collected by the vendor is not always clear and may not necessarily be known by the provider. OCR provides the example that if a student is writing a term paper regarding oncology services and visits a hospital’s oncology services webpage, information tracked in connection with that website visit would not be considered PHI. However, if a patient were looking at the same page regarding oncology services to see a second opinion on treatment options for a brain tumor, information tracked in connection with that website visit would be considered PHI. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for providers to determine the purpose of the visit.

Thus, based on the recent OCR guidance, if a covered entity is utilizing tracking technologies on its websites, in my opinion, the provider should always act as if PHI is being tracked and enter into a BAA with the vendor and ensure the use/disclosure is appropriate under HIPAA.

Kelli Fleming is a Partner at Burr & Forman LLP practicing exclusively in the Healthcare Practice Group. Kelli may be reached at (205) 458-5429 or

Posted in: HIPAA, Legal Watch, Technology

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