HIPAA is a set of laws regulating the acquisition, management, and distribution of protected health information by covered entities.
To protect patients’ data, sending HIPAA-compliant emails is necessary in the healthcare sector. But what is HIPAA compliant email, and how can someone use it to adhere to HIPAA guidelines?
There are many ways to achieve HIPAA email compliance. So, this article covers the best practices below.
- What Is HIPAA Compliant Email?
- Who is required to be HIPAA compliant?
- What Are the Requirements for a HIPAA-Compliant Email?
- The Importance of Safeguards in HIPAA
What Is HIPAA Compliant Email?
To understand the importance of a HIPAA-compliant email, we first need to define what HIPAA is. HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. A federal law requires healthcare providers to safeguard protected health information (PHI).
PHI can be in physical and digital form and refers to any documents, medical records, lab results, images, and emails a patient shares with their healthcare professional.
Also, any other identifiers of the patient unrelated to their medical history (such as their name, birth date, phone number, etc.) must be kept private. We refer to digital PHI as ePHI.
So, what is HIPAA compliant email? From here, we can define an email as HIPAA-compliant when it follows the guidelines posed by the HIPAA. It is encrypted, and its data is inaccessible to unauthorized users.
Who is required to be HIPAA compliant?
Individuals and organizations required to be HIPAA compliant are divided into covered entities and business associates. Covered entities include:
- Healthcare providers
- Health insurance plans
- Healthcare clearinghouses (entities that electronically transmit medical claims data).
Furthermore, a business associate is any person hired by any of the covered entities to handle PHI. Both parties are required to sign a business associate agreement outlining each party’s responsibilities in handling PHI.
What Are the Requirements for a HIPAA-Compliant Email?
What makes an email HIPAA compliant? For an email to be HIPAA compliant, it must be encrypted in transit and at rest. Plus, it must be archived for later retention, and be handled only by permitted users (healthcare staff). The penalties for breaching HIPAA are hefty, so ensure you have a feasible encryption plan.
Therefore, here are some of the best practices to implement when ensuring HIPAA email compliance:
1. Use a HIPAA-compliant email service
Using a HIPAA-compliant email service means you’re always up to date with the latest guidelines of the act. Here are some of the benefits you can enjoy from an automated HIPAA-compliant service:
- Comprehensive data protection measures
- Enhanced accountability and transparency
- Elimination of human errors
- Strict access controls
- Reduction of administrative tasks
When deciding between providers, go for a zero-step email encryption service. This automatically encrypts all emails, significantly lowering the risks of a data breach.
2. Use an archiving tool
Email archive solutions for healthcare professionals simplify the process of storing confidential emails for later use. By archiving emails, you can retrieve them later per the recipient’s request or simply to avoid data loss. With an archiving tool, you’re covered in the case of a malicious attack that results in email deletion.
3. Ensure end-to-end encryption
End-to-end encryption ensures unauthorized users like hackers and spammers cannot read confidential data. It turns the contents of the email unreadable using a cryptographic key, and all others can see is gibberish. Only permitted users can read encrypted data using a private key provided by the email sender.
4. Obtain consent from patients to send PHI over email
While a patient giving you their email address implies consent, it’s always better to ask them directly whether they’d like to receive confidential information like lab results via email. In some cases, patients use a shared computer, which may result in an uncomfortable situation if someone other than the designated recipient opens the email.
5. Perform annual audits
Are all emails HIPAA compliant once they’re encrypted? They are not, as there are more considerations to take into account. For example, every covered entity must perform six audits to track its compliance with HIPAA rules and regulations:
- Security risk assessment
- Privacy standards audit (not required for BAs)
- HITECH Subtitle D privacy audit
- Security standards audit
- Asset and device audit
- Physical site audit
It’s recommended that these audits be done yearly, depending on the organization’s needs. These periodic audits take into account the covered entities and business associates.
Once you’ve gathered all the data, you should establish all the gaps you’ve identified in your HIPAA compliance strategy and find ways to fill them.
6. Implement a remediation plan
In the case of a breach, a remediation plan can help you minimize the damage and eliminate the problem for good. However, it can also help you assess gaps in your compliance and pinpoint their solutions to prevent a breach from occurring in the first place.
Your remediation plan should include solutions based on the six necessary HIPAA audits outlined above. Everything should be documented in writing, and the plans should be reviewed and renewed on an annual basis.
7. Get everything in writing
You should document every step you take in your HIPAA compliance strategy. For example, you should have documentation proving that your staff has undergone HIPAA training and that you perform regular audits. Audit results should be documented dating back six years; the same goes for your remediation plan.
The Importance of Safeguards in HIPAA
Encryption alone isn’t enough to fulfill compliance regulations. HIPAA requires covered entities to implement administrative, technical, and physical safeguards in order to protect any individually identifiable health information:
- Administrative safeguards involve performing risk analyses to assess the potential risks ePHI may be exposed to. From there, you should implement appropriate security measures to eliminate these risks.
- Technical safeguards monitor the entire process of handling ePHI through email, ensuring all emails are fully protected. These practices include setting up an email firewall or a preferred type of encryption and using a data backup or archiving solution.
- Physical safeguards include the physical protection of PHI, such as security systems and alarms.
By using a combination of the different types of safeguards, you boost the level of patient privacy and gain your patients’ trust.
What is HIPAA compliant email? An email is considered HIPAA-compliant when it adheres to regulations set by the act to safeguard ePHI. Access to patients’ sensitive data isn’t limited to healthcare professionals alone.
Other entities may also have access to this information, like the health insurance provider, healthcare clearinghouses, and the employees at these establishments.
What are the requirements for an email to be HIPAA compliant? There are useful practices for keeping such sensitive data safe.
People can subscribe to a HIPAA-compliant email service, use an archiving tool for keeping records, and perform regular audits to establish a data breach mitigation plan.
Finally, implementing HIPAA safeguards will add a sturdy layer of protection over patient data and create trust between you and your patients.