Rules for Using PHI in Patient Engagement

November 11th, 2022

As you know by now, we believe strongly in the benefits of using protected health information (PHI) to create highly targeted and personalized email campaigns. However, before you dive in and kick off your campaigns, you must be aware of the complex compliance requirements governing healthcare organizations’ marketing communications.

using PHI for patient engagement

Reminder: What is PHI?

PHI, or protected health information, is “individually identifiable protected health information.” Protected health information refers specifically to three classes of data:

  1. An individual’s past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition.
  2. The past, present, or future provisioning of health care to an individual.
  3. The past, present, or future payment-related information for the provisioning of health care to an individual.

For protected health information to be “individually identifiable,” the data can be linked to a specific individual (even if this is very indirect). There are 18 types of identifiers for an individual. Any one of these identifiers, combined with “protected health information,” would constitute PHI.

It’s often more complicated than it looks. For example, if you are running email campaigns, an email address is an individual identifier because it can be connected to a specific individual. That, combined with the email content, which often refers to the name of the provider, information about their health conditions, insurance coverage, or upcoming appointments, means that most communications from a healthcare practice could qualify as PHI.

HIPAA Rules for Using PHI in Patient Engagement

HIPAA regulates patient privacy. Healthcare organizations and their associates must obtain consent and implement technical safeguards before starting marketing campaigns.

HIPAA Privacy Rule

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Servicesyou must acquire consent to send marketing communications under the HIPAA Privacy Rule. It reads, “With limited exceptions, the Rule requires an individual’s written authorization before a use or disclosure of his or her protected health information can be made for marketing.”

The Privacy Rule defines “marketing” as “a communication about a product or service that encourages recipients of the communication to purchase or use the product or service.” This also applies to many patient engagement communications.  

Generally, if the communication is “marketing,” then the communication can only occur if the covered entity obtains an individual’s authorization. Organizations must keep track of who has consented to receive marketing communications and allow them to opt-out at any time. We further discuss the nuances of patient consent for marketing communications here.

HIPAA Security Rule

All covered entities and their Business Associates are subject to the HIPAA Security Rule. If you are working with a vendor (like a marketing consultant, email marketing platform, or ad agency) that will have access to PHI, you need to enforce a Business Associate Agreement.

The HIPAA Security Rule categorizes the necessary safeguards into three categories: Physical, Administrative, and Technical Safeguards. More details about the requirements for each can be found here. Any vendor you choose to work with must follow these regulations. Some basic requirements include the following:

  • Physically protecting data and where it is stored,
  • Training staff on handling PHI, and
  • Setting up technology to protect PHI properly.

Assuming your patient engagement campaigns are primarily occurring via email, at a minimum, you must ensure that the email marketing vendor will:

  • Protect data at rest and
  • Protect data in transmission.

This means utilizing encryption to ensure that PHI cannot be eavesdropped on. Many popular email marketing vendors do not encrypt PHI in transmission. It’s extremely important to choose a provider who can protect PHI following HIPAA regulations.

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The Benefits of Using PHI for Patient Engagement

Once you have established the proper policies and procedures, signed a BAA, and put any technical requirements in place, you can start segmenting and personalizing emails using PHI. Here are some segmentation and personalization ideas to get started.

By applying these techniques and using PHI in your patient engagement strategy, you can:

  • Design targeted patient journeys
  • Deliver better patient outcomes
  • Improve ROI and reduce costs

Contact us today to learn more about how to securely engage patients using PHI.