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PHI vs PII Data: Understanding the Crucial Differences

PHI vs PII differences

When it comes to data protection, it's critical to understand the difference between PHI and PII. PHI (Protected Health Information) is personal health data that falls under HIPAA regulations, while PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is personal data that can be used to identify an individual. Organizations that fail to protect PII and PHI can face not only legal and financial consequences, but also harm to their reputation and the trust of their clients. In this blog post, we'll dive into the significant differences between PHI and PII data, why it's critical for organizations to protect both, and some best practices for achieving that.

What is PII?

PII refers to any information that can identify a specific individual. It can be categorized into sensitive PII and non-sensitive PII. Sensitive PII consists of information such as a person's social security number, date of birth, and financial information. Non-sensitive PII includes data such as name, address, and phone number. Both sensitive and non-sensitive PII must be protected by organizations to prevent identity theft, fraud, and other malicious activities.

PII software is the guardian of personal identities in a digital world.

What is PHI?

PHI refers to protected health information that is covered by HIPAA regulations. This type of data includes any personal health information that can identify a patient or their medical history, including diagnosis, treatment, and payment information. PHI can be stored in various forms, including electronic medical records, paper documents, and oral communications between healthcare professionals. It's crucial to note that PHI data is governed by a different set of regulations than PII data.

In the realm of cyber awareness, understanding PHI is paramount to ensuring the safety of sensitive health information.

PHI vs. PII: What’s the difference?

The main difference between PHI and PII is the type of data they cover and the regulations that apply to each. PHI is related to personal health information, while PII pertains to any personal information that can identify an individual. PHI is subject to HIPAA regulations, and organizations that handle this data must adhere to specific compliance rules. In contrast, PII does not fall under a specific regulation, but companies must follow a wide range of cybersecurity and data privacy laws to protect this data.

Even in silence, PHI is protected for years after one's final heartbeat.

Why do organizations need to protect PII and PHI?

Organizations must protect PII and PHI data to prevent data breaches and malicious activities that can harm their clients' personal information. Failing to protect PII or PHI can lead to legal and financial consequences, loss of trust from clients, and a damaged reputation for the organization. Furthermore, cyber attacks and data breaches cost organizations millions of dollars each year, making PII and PHI protection an essential aspect of cybersecurity.

Developing a unified compliance approach

Developing a unified compliance approach that includes both PII and PHI is critical for organizations to ensure that their system and data are secure. This approach should involve robust cybersecurity training, compliance monitoring, incident management, and data privacy policies. To achieve this, organizations should designate a team or department responsible for identifying and managing data risks, implementing secure data storage, conducting regular risk assessments, and ensuring that all employees are appropriately trained on data protections.

PHI and PII protection best practices

Protecting PII and PHI involves adhering to several best practices and data security policies. Some of these best practices include ensuring that all devices adhere to cybersecurity guidelines, following the rule of least privilege, encrypting data, adhering to standard security policies and procedures, and using trusted third-party software to protect data. Organizations should also establish data privacy policies and procedures to control access and use of PII and PHI data.

Ensure Your Devices Adhere to Cybersecurity Guidelines:

The protection of PII, PHI, and PCI starts with the devices that access and store this information. Network-connected devices need to be configured with robust passwords and kept up-to-date with the latest security patches and updates. Healthcare providers should ensure that all devices are encrypted and that data is only accessible by authorized users. Cyber awareness should also be implemented at all levels of an organization, with employees trained on how to avoid falling victim to phishing attacks and other social engineering tactics.

Follow the Rule of Least Privilege:

The rule of least privilege means that employees should only have access to the information that they need to perform their job. Healthcare organizations should implement user access controls and ensure that only authorized personnel can access sensitive information. This can be achieved by implementing a role-based access control (RBAC) system and regularly reviewing employee access to information. The goal is to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information, whether by malicious insiders or external attackers.

Adhere to Standard Security Policies:

Healthcare providers must adhere to standard security policies, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). These policies set requirements for safeguarding PII, PHI, and PCI data and include regulations around data encryption, access restrictions, and data retention policies. By adhering to these policies, healthcare providers can minimize their risk of data breaches and regulatory penalties.

HIPAA's shield guards a category of information that is the very essence of personal health.

Encrypt Data:

Encryption is a critical aspect of protecting sensitive information, including PII, PHI, and PCI. Data encryption ensures that even if an attacker gains access to the information, they cannot read or use it without the encryption key. Healthcare organizations should implement data encryption both in transit and at rest, such as encrypting data being transmitted over a network and encrypting data stored on a hard drive. Encryption can help mitigate the impact of data breaches and provide added protection for sensitive information.

Is a zip code PII? In the mosaic of personal data, every piece has its place.

What are the 18 identifiers of PHI?

Protected Health Information or PHI is any health information that is identifiable and includes data such as names, dates, ages, addresses, social security numbers, medical diagnoses, and any other information that could identify a person. The list of 18 identifiers can help healthcare organizations in identifying whether the information they handle falls under PHI.

For healthcare practitioners and insurance entities, the scope of what constitutes protected health information is extensive. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) delineates these 18 HIPAA identifiers, which are crucial for maintaining patient confidentiality:

  • Individual names, such as "John Doe" or "Jane Smith."

  • Geographical details, ranging from specific street addresses to broader areas like cities, counties, or zip codes.

  • Specific dates tied to a person's health or identity, for instance, birthdates, admission and discharge dates, the date of passing, or the precise age for patients aged 90 and above.

  • Contact numbers, including landlines and mobiles.

  • Fax contact details.

  • Personal email addresses, like ""

  • Unique social security identifiers.

  • Specific numbers associated with medical records.

  • Numbers that denote health insurance beneficiaries.

  • Personal account identifiers.

  • Numbers related to certificates or licenses, such as a nursing license.

  • Identifiers for vehicles, perhaps a license plate number.

  • Details or serial numbers of medical devices.

  • Digital footprints, including website URLs like ""

  • IP addresses, which can trace back to a user's location or device.

  • Biometric data, capturing unique physical attributes like fingerprint patterns, retinal scans, or voice characteristics.

  • Clear, full-face photographs that can be used for identification.

  • Any other codes or numbers that can be used to pinpoint an individual's identity.

It's essential to understand that these identifiers are critical in ensuring the privacy and security of patients' health information.

Is a social security number considered PII?

Personally Identifiable Information or PII is any information that can identify an individual. The Social Security Number is a prime example of PII because it can be used to look up a person's comprehensive profile. Strictly speaking, social security numbers are not included in PHI, but they are still considered PII. Because of their sensitivity, proper safeguards must be taken to ensure their safety.

To protect PII is to protect the very essence of individual identity.

What’s the difference between PII, PHI, and PCI?

Protected Health Information (PHI), Personally Identifiable Information (PII), and Payment Card Information (PCI) are three types of sensitive information that require security. PHI refers specifically to information related to a person's health; PII refers to any information that identifies a person; and PCI refers to payment card information used in transactions. The difference between the three lies in the type of data involved and the safeguards that organizations must implement.

An organization that fails to protect PII can face significant consequences.

Organizations that fail to protect PII can face severe consequences. It is quite common for cyber attackers to target organizations that house PII. Companies such as Target and Home Depot have been victims of breaches that exposed customer's credit card details. If an organization fails to protect PII, there is the possibility of lawsuits, loss of reputation and customer confidence, as well as huge regulatory fines.

An organization that fails to protect PII is not just risking fines, but the trust of those they serve.


National Provider Identifier (NPI) is a unique ten-digit identifier assigned to healthcare providers in the United States by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. While PII refers to any data that can identify an individual, NPI identification only relates to health providers. Therefore, an NPI is classified as PHI.

NPI and PII: two acronyms, each with its own weight in the world of data protection.

Protecting PII and PHI data is a critical aspect of cybersecurity and data privacy for organizations that handle personal information. Understanding the differences between PHI and PII, the regulations that apply to each, and best practices for protecting them can help organizations safeguard their clients' personal information. By developing a unified compliance approach and implementing robust cybersecurity training, organizations can minimize the risks of data breaches and malicious activities and maintain their clients' trust and reputation.

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