What To Look for in a HIPAA-Compliant Email Provider
Whether you work for a doctor's office, healthcare organization, or just find yourself handling protected health information or ePHI, this blog breaks down what to look for in a HIPAA-compliant email service provider.
HIPAA compliance is of the utmost importance to organizations and individuals working in the healthcare industry. By maintaining compliance with existing regulations, health professionals can continue to serve their patients without having to worry about compromising patients’ privacy or being subject to fines for mishandling their protected health information (PHI).
It can be especially challenging for organizations to handle patient communication in the health space, as the rules regarding handling each patient's health history are very strict. Choosing the right email tools and services to use when interacting with those whom you serve is not a task to take lightly.
This article covers what you should look for in an email service provider if you are required to comply with HIPAA guidelines.
What is HIPAA Compliance?
HIPAA compliance refers to compliance with all the legal guidelines set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act enacted by the U.S. Government. Compliance with this federal law is essential for professionals in the healthcare industry to conduct business and serve their patients sufficiently while safeguarding their private health information.
There are two rules that are particularly important for compliance with HIPAA regulations. These are:
- The Privacy Rule - This rule deals with the disclosure of protected health information and the control patients should have over the utilization of their health-related information.
- The Security Rule - This rule centers on so-called ePHI or "electronically protected health information." As a subset of the information covered by the privacy rule, this one details the ways in which patients' information should be exchanged in a digital format.
Both of these rules describe actions that must be taken to protect patient data, and these same guidelines also apply when transmitting this kind of data by email.
As a "covered entity" in the healthcare space, you are expected to make sure that all kinds of ePHI (including emails) are kept confidential at all times, allowing only authorized parties to handle them. Keeping this information intact and available upon request is also a necessity.
Below, we’ll highlight the critical functionality you should look for from your chosen email service provider and describe a few best practices worth adopting when handling ePHI email.
Important Functionality to Look for in a HIPAA-Compliant Email Provider
As long as you adopt the right strategy and implement effective safeguards, it should be safe to share ePHI over email with anyone authorized to view it. Here are a few of the things your email service provider should provide in order to comply:
Accidentally sending a sensitive email to the wrong email address is common in many interactions, but it cannot be allowed when ePHI is involved. Automated address analytics can help you check that the intended recipient is the right one every time you send an email, speeding the process up considerably for you while minimizing the risk of a mistake being made.
Although it may be acceptable to communicate with patients over unencrypted emails in some situations (such as those not containing ePHI), end-to-end encryption offers a much higher level of protection that should be used whenever possible. If encryption is not an option, you should keep the information disclosed in messages to a minimum.
Many patients may feel comfortable communicating with healthcare providers over email while being unaware of the risks the medium poses to their privacy. Embedded alerts can make highlighting the relative insecurity of email for private communication easier, allowing you to notify your patients automatically and encourage them to opt for a safer communication option.
Best Practices for Email HIPAA Compliance
Achieving complete HIPAA compliance while communicating with your patients over email is easier if you follow these best practices:
Focus on External Email
Internal messaging systems within your organization might not need to be monitored or encrypted as heavily as those that push ePHI to third parties. By fortifying external email communication systems, you can ensure that any protected health information leaving your organization remains protected during transmission.
Work With HIPAA-Compliant Providers
To take the guesswork out of choosing an email service provider, it may help to seek one with explicit HIPAA compliance. This means they are beholden to the same rules your organization is, and ensures they use processes that abide by the law.
Set Up a Policy
Training your team to follow a clear policy for dealing with email can make it much easier to achieve full compliance when communicating with patients. Among other things, your policy should cover how ePHI can be shared, what your access control processes are, and how emails should be documented over the long term.
Healthcare organizations must prioritize patient privacy and data security at all times, including when communicating via email. Choosing a HIPAA-compliant email provider is an essential step for any healthcare organization that may share ePHI through email at any time.