As reported in the Houston Chronicle on June 28, 2012, an unencrypted laptop computer containing data on more than 30,000 patients of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (“MD Anderson”) was stolen from a faculty member’s home on April 30, 2012. The stolen laptop scenario has become all too familiar (this blog series has reported on the high proportion of breaches resulting from the theft or loss of laptops or other portable devices), and even the high number of patients affected pales in comparison with the roughly 5 million patients affected in the SAIC breach

What caught my attention was the fact that MD Anderson posted notice of the breach on its website on June 28th, exactly 59 days after the theft took place. Pursuant to the interim final breach notification regulations, a covered entity must provide notice to affected individuals “without unreasonable delay and in no case later than 60 calendar days after discovery of the breach.”   Although an exception exists for prompt notification where a law enforcement official tells the covered entity (or business associate) that notification would impede the criminal investigation or cause damage to national security, the time required for performance of a criminal investigation is, presumably, less than 60 days. MD Anderson’s website notice gives every indication that it acted promptly and investigated thoroughly:


MD Anderson was alerted to the theft on May 1 and immediately began a thorough investigation to determine what information was contained on the laptop. After a detailed review with outside forensics experts, we have confirmed that the laptop may have contained some of our patients’ personal information, including patients’ names, medical record numbers, treatment and/or research information, and in some instances Social Security numbers.


Would patients have been better off knowing their data might have been illegally accessed prior to day 59 following the breach, or does the benefit of a thorough investigation outweigh the risk that earlier notification would have benefited patients? 


Navigant Consulting released an “Information Security and Data Breach Report” in April of this year that found that the average number of days between discovery of a breach involving medical records and disclosure was 63 days in the third quarter of 2011, compared with 65 days in the fourth quarter of 2011, an increase of 3%, despite the requirement that applicable HIPAA law requires patients to be notified “without unreasonable delay” and no later than 60 days following the breach. When analyzed in terms of the entity reporting the breach, “[h]ealthcare entities registered an 84% increase between discovery and disclosure from 51 days in Q3 to 94 days in Q4.” 


From this perspective, it seems MD Anderson did pretty well. Had the faculty member delayed his or her original notification to MD Anderson regarding the theft, however, MD Anderson might have been hard-pressed to meet the 60 day deadline. Covered entities such as MD Anderson (and business associates who provide protected health information to subcontractors) should be reminded that prompt communication and investigation is essential to meeting the “without unreasonable delay and in no case later than 60 calendar days” notification requirement, and must balance the need to get the facts straight with the need to alert affected individuals, and, where applicable, the Department of Health and Human Services and state agencies, as quickly as possible.