Healthcare is a competitive business, and those in the industry are facing increasing pressure to maintain their standing against their rivals. One of the key tactics for keeping up involves having a carefully planned marketing strategy.
While there are a range of different approaches that companies can take, sending out marketing emails proves popular, because many organizations have substantial email lists of their clients.
This practice can have a range of business advantages, but the more cautious in the sector may be wondering “Do healthcare marketing emails have to be HIPAA-compliant?”
It’s an important question to ask, and one that’s not exactly clear-cut, because the answer is dependent on the context.
Does the Email Contain Protected Health Information?
Information is protected by HIPAA regulations if it contains “protected health information” that is “individually identifiable.” The term “protected health information” refers to any data that relates to a person’s health, treatment or payment information, whether it is in the past, present, or future.
Under this definition, things like the results of a test, a prescription, an appointment notice, or a receipt for healthcare services are just a few of the many things considered “protected health information.”
Is the Information Individually Identifiable?
If information is individually identifiable, it can somehow be linked back to the individual. There are a long list of identifiers, such as names, addresses, birthdays, contact details, insurance details, biometrics, and many more are considered possible identifiers under HIPAA. The final entry in the official list of possible identifiers is “Any other characteristic that could uniquely identify the individual”, so this concept is really is all-encompassing.
Does the Marketing Email Tick Both Boxes?
If it does, then the email needs to be sent in a HIPAA-compliant manner. If it doesn’t your organization may be safe. But before you rush into sending off your emails, you need to be careful, because the edges of HIPAA can be blurred, and it’s best to stay on the safe side.
Let’s give you an example. A clinic comes across a study that recommends new dietary supplementation for expectant mothers. It decides that it can use this information not just to help mothers-to-be, but also to bring in new business. The clinic then sends out an email to all of its expectant mothers with details from the new study, asking them to make an appointment if they have any further questions.
Everything should be above board, right? Well, maybe not. Because the email was only sent to expectant mothers, it infers that everyone in the group is an expectant mother, which means that it could be considered protected health information. Since it was also addressed to each of their email addresses, it also contains individually identifiable information.
With both of these characteristics in place, it’s easy to see how this kind of email could potentially fall foul of HIPAA regulations. If the email had been sent to every member of the clinic, then it might not be viewed as violating HIPAA, because such an approach wouldn’t single out the women who were pregnat (though it might single you out as a former patient of that clinic and, depending on what the clinic is, that could also imply things about your past/present/future medical treatments). While this kind of situation sounds rare, it’s important to appreciate that it can and does occur, so that your organization is more cautious and doesn’t unwittingly end up with a HIPAA violation.
Even if most of your organization’s emails never tick both of these boxes, it may be best to send them in a HIPAA-compliant manner anyway. This is because a slight, unintentional change to your organization’s approach could lead to the inclusion of ePHI, leading your company to a HIPAA violation.
When you consider the high penalties of these violations in comparison to the insignificant costs of sending HIPAA-compliant messages, making sure that all of its emails are sent in compliance with the regulations ends up being a pretty cheap insurance policy.
How Can You Make Healthcare Marketing Emails HIPAA-Compliant?
If your organization sends out marketing emails that could contain ePHI, then it’s important to make sure that they are sent in a HIPAA-compliant manner. The best approach is to use a HIPAA-compliant bulk email service, such as LuxSci’s High Volume Secure Email Sending.
Your organization will need to sign a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement with the service provider and use the appropriate encryption, access control and other security mechanisms that are needed to protect ePHI.
Using a service with opt-out encryption (as opposed to one with risky opt-in encryption, requiring you to actively specify which messages need encryption) limits the risks of user error, which means that your organization is more free to send out its marketing emails, without such a significant threat of accidentally violating HIPAA regulations.