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How to Evaluate any New Software or Service for HIPAA Compliance

Friday, August 9th, 2019

If your organization operates in the health sector or processes data for clients that are, then it will need to deal with all ePHI in a HIPAA-compliant manner. This means that HIPAA-compliant software and services are required whenever and wherever protected health information is dealt with.

HIPAA regulations limit the range of services that a company can use. Due to the complexity of the laws, it’s important to evaluate any potential service in a thorough manner to ensure that it is in fact HIPAA compliant. To make the process a little less daunting, we’ve collected a list of steps that make it easier to discern whether a provider can protect your organization’s data appropriately:

Does the Provider Say That the Service Is HIPAA Compliant?

This is the easiest and perhaps most obvious step. Organizations that provide HIPAA-compliant services generally advertise it quite prominently. If they are putting in the extra work to keep their clients secure and within the regulations, then the odds are that they are going to tell potential customers about it.

If you visit the company’s website (or talk to a sales rep) and don’t come across any information about HIPAA compliance, then it’s pretty safe to assume that the software or service is not HIPAA Compliant. If you want to make sure that you didn’t overlook anything, you can do a site search of the company’s website, looking for “HIPAA Compliant” and related keywords.

If you don’t find any results, it’s probably best to move on to other providers. If a company was actually HIPAA Compliant but didn’t make the information clear, it raises some serious questions about the company’s practices and strategies. Given the importance of HIPAA Compliance, it’s probably best to move on to another provider.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume that we can trust a company just because it says it’s HIPAA Compliant. This is simply the first step of the evaluation process and it helps to rule out a large number of providers. Once your organization has narrowed down the list, it still needs to analyze other aspects of the service and the company behind it.

Is the Service Provider Willing to Sign a Business Associate Agreement?

The next step is to determine whether the provider is willing to sign a business associate agreement (BAA) with your organization. If the service provider will be processing your company’s ePHI, but won’t sign a BAA with it, then any data sharing will not be HIPAA Compliant.

According to HIPAA, a BAA is required for any third party that may process your organization’s ePHI. This agreement stipulates how the data will be protected and processed, as well as where the responsibilities are delineated.

Let’s say a hypothetical organization did actually secure the data in a HIPAA-compliant manner without having signed the agreement – this would still violate the regulations, because there is no written agreement that ensures the protection of the patient data.

Look at the Company’s Reputation and Reviews

Trust is critical when it comes to HIPAA compliance. While you can’t look into the future and see how your organization’s experience with a service will play out, you can get a rough idea by looking at the company’s reputation, as well as any public reviews that may have been posted.

If a service provider has been in the industry for a long time, it’s generally a good sign. But be wary if the organization is branching out into a new service. A company could be industry-renowned for its HIPAA-compliant email, but if it have just launched a new chat service, it may not necessarily be up to the same standards. While new services aren’t necessarily bad by default, it’s probably best to do additional research before signing up to be a guinea pig.

Another key indicator is the service provider’s reviews. Do you know anyone personally or that you trust who has used the service? What did they say? Did their experience show that the company was committed to security and HIPAA compliance?

You can also look to online reviews and industry forums to find more information and stories from service providers. It’s important to not throw all of your trust into what someone says on the internet, but if you come across negative experience after negative experience, it may be a decent warning sign to steer clear. Watch out for digital marketing though – some companies are especially cunning and post ads that look like honest forum posts or reviews.

Investigate the Details

The steps listed above are a good way to narrow things down, but they are no substitute for a thorough evaluation. It’s your organization’s responsibility to make sure that a potential service has every technical, administrative, and operational measure that it needs to stay within the lines of HIPAA.

While a service provider will be responsible for compliance in a number of areas (if a BAA is in place), your organization is not at all free of obligations. It needs to make sure that it is encrypting data where necessary, that it implements effective access control, and has a host of other measures in place. It also needs an overarching policy that brings all of the elements together in a comprehensive plan.

Any HIPAA-compliant provider should be more than happy to share the technical, privacy, and legal details with a potential client. If not, your organization should be extremely suspicious of its services. If your organization lacks the expertise to thoroughly evaluate a provider, then it may be best to engage an outside consultant who can handle it for you.

HIPAA compliance is serious and complex. It’s important to get it right from the start, through careful examination and planning. If your organization doesn’t tread carefully from the beginning, it could very well find itself on the wrong side of the regulations, facing significant legal penalties.

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