What is protected health information?

Protected Health Information (PHI) is a term defined by HIPAA to represent any personal information that is created, received, transmitted, or stored by a healthcare entity, which relates to an individual’s physical or mental health condition, the provision of healthcare services, or the past, present, or future payments for the provision of healthcare. This information encompasses various data, including medical histories, test results, insurance details, and other personal identifiers such as names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. PHI can exist in various forms including electronic records, paper documents, or verbal communications. The goal of protecting PHI is to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and security of individuals’ health information, preventing unauthorized access and potential misuse.

Definition of Protected Health Information

Protected Health Information (PHI) is defined as to any individually identifiable health information that is held or transmitted by a healthcare entity or its business associates, in any form or medium, whether electronic, on paper, or oral. This information is considered “protected” under the HIPAA.

PHI includes details concerning a person’s physical or mental health, the provision of health services, or information regarding payment for such health services that can be linked back to an individual. This could encompass a wide variety of data, including medical records, treatment histories, test results, insurance information, and other personally identifiable data.

What Does HIPAA Protect?

HIPAA protects a category of information known as protected health information (PHI), which encompasses a wide range of identifiable health data used or disclosed by various entities like healthcare providers, insurance companies, and business associates. This act was implemented to ensure that individuals’ health information is handled with the utmost confidentiality and security.

Under this federal law, “protected health information” refers to any information that can be connected to an individual’s past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition, the provision of health care to the individual, or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual. This information can be in any form – electronic, paper, or oral, and includes a variety of data types such as medical records, billing information, and even verbal communications between healthcare providers.

By safeguarding this category of sensitive data, HIPAA works to prevent unauthorized access to medical records, thereby preserving the privacy and dignity of patients across the healthcare sector. Moreover, the act outlines the necessary safeguards that entities must put in place, including administrative, physical, and technical safeguards, to protect the integrity and confidentiality of protected health information. Compliance with these provisions helps prevent data breaches and unauthorized disclosures, which can lead to fraud, identity theft, and other adverse consequences for individuals and healthcare entities.

Authorization for Release of Protected Health Information

An Authorization for Release of Protected Health Information is a legally mandated document that patients must complete to grant healthcare providers the right to disclose their health information to a specified party for a particular purpose. This document serves as a means of preserving the privacy and security of an individual’s sensitive medical data. This authorization is a formal consent that delineates the specific pieces of information to be shared, who the recipients of this information will be, and the reasons behind such disclosure, which could range from continuity of care to legal necessities. It is a requisite that this document clearly articulates the timeframe for which the authorization is valid, and it must inform the individual of their right to revoke the authorization at any time, barring any action already undertaken with reliance on the authorization. In the safeguarding of patients’ rights, this authorization ensures that personal health information is handled with due diligence and conscientiousness, increasing trust and transparency between healthcare providers and their patients while facilitating the necessary flow of information within the bounds of law and ethics.

What is Considered Protected Health Information?

Protected Health Information, encompasses a broad range of identifiable personal health information that is generated, maintained, transmitted, or accessed by healthcare providers, insurance companies, and other related entities. This category of data is deeply sensitive, containing specifics that can include, but are not limited to, an individual’s medical history, diagnoses, treatment details, laboratory results, insurance information, and other health-related demographics. Beyond the medical facets, PHI also comprises personal identifiers such as names, addresses, dates (including birth, death, appointments), telephone numbers, email addresses, and social security numbers, among other identifiers. The core objective of classifying this information as “protected” is to implement stringent measures that ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of individuals’ health data, restricting unauthorized access and disclosure. It is a pivotal element in safeguarding the privacy rights of patients, fostering trust within the healthcare system, and promoting responsible handling and sharing of health-related information, while concurrently facilitating essential communications and transactions in healthcare services.

Examples of Protected Health Information

Protected Health Information encompasses sensitive patient data such as names, medical conditions, treatment records, insurance details, and unique identifiers like Social Security Numbers, all requiring strict confidentiality and protection to uphold patient privacy and comply with healthcare data privacy regulations.

PHI Category Examples
Demographic Information – Name (first, last, middle)
– Date of Birth
– Gender
– Social Security Number (SSN)
– Marital status
– Ethnicity/Race
– Address (street, city, state, ZIP code)
– Phone number
– Email address
– Emergency contact information
– Next of kin
– Language preference
– Citizenship status
Medical History – Chronic medical conditions
– Family medical history
– Immunization records
– Past surgeries and procedures
– Mental health history
– Substance abuse history
– Allergies (drug, food, environmental)
– Genetic information (if applicable)
Test Results – Blood pressure readings
– Cholesterol levels
– Blood sugar levels
– HIV test results
– Cancer screening results
– Radiology images (X-rays, MRIs, CT scans)
– ECG/EKG results
– Genetic test results
Treatment Information – Physician notes
– Treatment plans
– Surgery notes
– Medication prescriptions
– Rehabilitation progress
– Home healthcare plans
– Mental health treatment records
Insurance Information – Health insurance provider
– Policyholder name
– Policy number
– Co-pay and deductible amounts
– Preauthorization details
– Claims status
Payment Information – Billing address
– Payment history
– Credit card information
– Bank account details
– Payment receipts
– Invoices and billing statements
Communication Records – Medical correspondence
– Physician-patient emails
– Nurse-patient messages
– Telehealth session recordings
– Appointment scheduling notes
– Consent forms
Unique Identifiers – Medical record numbers
– Patient account numbers
– Health plan beneficiary numbers
– National Provider Identifier (NPI)
– Biometric identifiers (e.g., fingerprints)
– Driver’s license number
– Passport number
– Medicare/Medicaid ID


Electronic Protected Health Information

Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) refers to sensitive health data stored, transmitted, or processed electronically, encompassing digital medical records, lab results, radiology images, email communications between healthcare professionals, and patient health information in electronic health records (EHRs), all of which must be safeguarded with robust security measures to ensure data integrity, confidentiality, and compliance with healthcare data privacy regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), to protect patients’ sensitive information.ePHI provide benefits in the healthcare industry. ePHI enhances accessibility and portability of patient records, enabling healthcare providers to access vital medical information quickly and securely, improving the efficiency of care delivery and reducing the risk of errors due to incomplete or missing data.  ePHI allows for seamless communication among healthcare professionals through secure digital channels, promoting collaborative and coordinated care. Moreover, it supports data analytics and research, enabling healthcare organizations to analyze patient populations, identify trends, and improve treatment outcomes.  ePHI facilitates telemedicine and remote patient monitoring, expanding healthcare access to remote or underserved areas while improving patient engagement. ePHI enhances security through encryption, access controls, and audit trails, ensuring that patient information is safeguarded from unauthorized access and breaches, thereby maintaining patient trust and complying with stringent data protection regulations like HIPAA.