Updated May 2022.
The telehealth landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years. At the height of the pandemic closures in April 2021, 64% of US households reported using telehealth. 43% of Americans plan to continue using telehealth, and many healthcare providers continue to offer virtual care.
When telehealth took off, many privacy and security regulations were waived so that patients could quickly access care. Now that regulations are being re-implemented, it’s essential to examine how HIPAA regulations apply to the telehealth industry.
Remote Health Care
Remote health care, also known as telemedicine, involves providing medical services through video calls and other technologies. It can help provide care in rural communities and eliminate travel times for healthcare practitioners, increasing efficiency.
HIPAA regulations apply to all telemedicine because they involve transmitting and processing electronic protected health information (ePHI). Because of this, every communication channel used for telemedicine needs to be HIPAA-compliant, whether it is for video calls, voice calls, email, or other means.
These channels need to be encrypted to prevent attackers from intercepting ePHI, and access controls need to be in place so that only authorized persons can access the data. Several other safeguards should also be used, depending on the communication channel.
Remote Patient Monitoring
In-home monitoring has become more common in recent years because it allows healthcare practitioners to keep an eye on patients while they are in the comfort of their own homes.
This can have several benefits, such as allowing patients to be released from the hospital early, limiting the number of times that patients need to visit medical professionals for checkups, and reducing how frequently healthcare practitioners need to make visits to a patient’s home.
Despite these advantages, there are also many privacy issues. Remote patient monitoring often involves using internet-connected scales, blood pressure monitors, glucose monitors, and heart rate monitors to track vital signs.
This data needs to be sent to the healthcare professionals, which means that the very nature of the process involves the transmission of ePHI. To protect the data transmission, safeguards need to be in place at each step. These measures can include access controls, encryption, and more.
Whether or not HIPAA regulates these services will depend on their content and focus. If protective measures are required, the appropriate safeguards will vary according to the message’s delivery.
The first step is determining whether any potential healthcare communication contains ePHI. This will depend on the circumstances. If a practice administrator emails all of its patients about an update to the clinic’s hours, this is not regarded as ePHI because it does not specify any patient’s health condition, treatment, or payment details. However, if the mailing list identifies the recipient as a patient, that may imply something about their medical history.
The situation becomes even murkier if the same administrator sends an email about depression treatments to those patients who suffer from the illness. Since this is targeted at a specific group of people who have the condition, it reveals details about their health.
Identifying ePHI is not always straightforward. We recommend that health care organizations protect every communication as if it contains ePHI to be on the safe side.
Telehealth Reminder Messages
Many organizations send email and text messages to their patients to help remind them of upcoming appointments, take their medications, or refill prescriptions. Still, organizations need to be careful about the message contents and how they are sent.
If the organization’s reminders contain ePHI (and such reminders almost always do), they should only be sent over secure, HIPAA-compliant channels.
Delivering Telehealth Securely & within HIPAA Regulations
Telehealth can be beneficial for both healthcare providers and patients. For organizations offering these services, it’s essential to take security and HIPAA regulations into account. Otherwise, they could face a serious data breach or HIPAA penalties.
Keep your business and your patients safe by using a HIPAA-compliant provider like LuxSci. We have over 20 years of experience providing secure communications services to support the telehealth industry.