Find Out How To Craft HIPAA-Compliant Emails For Your Therapy Practice
Whether you run a private practice or are part of a group practice, you can’t deny the convenience of email.
Healthcare professionals use emails and secure messaging platforms to communicate with clients, remind them of appointments, and follow up with additional resources your patients can access for extra help.
However, email presents some serious concerns regarding HIPAA, no matter how convenient. Part of your job as a therapist is to keep protected health information safe and prevent third parties from accessing it.
So you’ll need to implement security measures to prevent your practice’s email communications from leaking.
Let’s take a closer look at what HIPAA means, which secure email service providers can offer enough protection, and five ways you can ensure every professional email you send is HIPAA compliant.
What is HIPAA?
HIPAA, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a federal law that the government established in 1996.
It sets national standards for protecting sensitive health information, such as diagnosis, treatment plans, or medications. It prohibits this information from being disclosed without the knowledge or consent of the patient.
HIPAA is meant to improve the healthcare industry’s level of efficiency, enhance the portability of health insurance, and protect patients' privacy by ensuring their information is protected.
However, even the most experienced therapists may accidentally violate HIPAA, causing significant problems for their licensure and therapy practice.
Let’s look at how emails can lead to severe HIPAA concerns.
Why Do Mental Health Professionals Need to Worry About Sensitive Data in Emails?
Healthcare organizations must be diligent in protecting their patient’s sensitive information. Otherwise, they could be faced with penalties, fines, or even termination.
The use of emails poses a lot of issues that can put healthcare providers in jeopardy of violating HIPAA.
Here are some ways emails can cause your practice big headaches:
Opened by someone other than the intended recipient: If other people have access to your client's email inbox, such as spouses, friends, or coworkers, this means your client’s information is available with the click of a button. So if your client provides their work email or another unsecure account, you could inadvertently violate their HIPAA rights.
Third-party interception: If emails are sent over unsecured third-party networks, such as a bookstore, coffee shop, or public library, a third party can easily access unencrypted messages.
Email errors: No one is perfect. So if you accidentally input the wrong email address, such as misspelling the email or entering the email of a spouse or partner, and send an email with sensitive information to the wrong person, this results in a HIPAA violation.
Without the proper security measures in place, it’s easy for even the most diligent therapist to make an error that will violate their patient’s rights.
So what can you do to ensure that your email communications don't result in HIPAA violations? Let’s take a look at five things you can do to ensure secure email practices.
5 Ways to Keep Private Health Information Secure Online
HIPAA laws are in place to protect private health information or PHI. This means critical information, such as your treatment notes, medical records, and even the fact that the patient is under your care, must be kept away from third parties.
So if you utilize a digital workspace to take notes, communicate with patients, or store any records, you need to worry about your cyber security.
Let’s look at five ways you can protect the PHI in your possession.
1. Check That You Offer Secure Communications For Virtual Visits
Emails aren’t the only platform that can cause cybersecurity issues.
If you offer virtual visits, you’ll need more than an encrypted email service to ensure all of your patient's protected health information is safe.
Ensure your secure meeting platform offers features like biometric authentication, mobile-friendly accessibility, and secure messaging so patients can reach out to you on an encrypted platform.
You’ll need end-to-end encryption to ensure none of your patient’s sensitive information is vulnerable.
2. Only Send Messages Through A HIPAA-Compliant Email Service
Believe it or not, your free email account from an email provider like Gmail or Microsoft Outlook does not offer email encryption services. This means your email archive is vulnerable to third-party viewers.
Both Outlook and G Suite offer a paid upgrade for encryption services.
However, if you want an encrypted email service that offers customer support, secure forms, and e-signatures designed for therapists, opt for an email solution from Mailhippo, Hushmail, or Protonmail.
These platforms are well-versed in HIPAA law and have safeguards in place to protect both mental health professionals and their patients.
They also offer a Business Associate Agreement, or BAA, to ensure complete protection of PHI and all covered entities. So the pricing is worth the protection they offer.
3. Go Beyond A HIPAA Disclaimer
Many therapists put a HIPAA disclosure within their e-signatures that automatically attach to the bottom of each email they send.
However, this isn’t enough to ensure your patients understand the importance of sending secure messages.
Talk with your patients about how their email habits could affect their cybersecurity. For instance, if they have an unlocked phone, emails sent from their email app could be visible to others.
Additionally, take the time to ensure your disclosure is phrased correctly to avoid confusion or accidental data breaches.
For example, if your disclaimers ask anyone who isn’t the intended recipient to reply so you can remove the email address from your contacts, they are retransmitting sensitive data and compounding the HIPAA issue.
4. Use A Third-Party Escrow Program
A third-party escrow program notifies clients through text message or email that they have received correspondence from their healthcare provider.
The client will then log into a different platform to view encrypted messages that are password protected. This means that only the user with the password, in this case the client, can view these messages.
For most of these programs, patients cannot download an app, increasing the security of secure web messages. However, it prevents messages and sensitive web forms from being intercepted.
5. Avoid Sending Emails On Unsecured Servers
If you are a therapist on the go and interact with clients through email from your phone, you must ensure that you are not sending messages through unsecured services.
So never connect to the free wifi at a coffee shop, convention center, or other public space when sending secured messages.
Additionally, if your healthcare organization already uses a messaging system, only communicate utilizing that system. Never use personal email or social media messaging to talk with your clients.
Let BeaconLive Help You Hold Secure Virtual Meetings and Correspondence
As a therapist, you always have your patients’ best interests at heart. So protecting patient confidentiality is just one challenge you face as a therapist.
If you’re looking for help launching continuing medical education classes, holding live virtual events, or hosting webinars to connect with new clients, BeaconLive can help.
We offer virtual event services and a continuing education platform that allows therapists like you to expand their practice and offer essential CME courses to your peers.
Contact us today for more information on how BeaconLive can help.