Telehealth is starting to become a more popular option for providing efficient treatment and other services. Since it’s still an emerging practice, many in the health industry wonder how telehealth fits into the existing HIPAA regulations.
You may be surprised to find out that HIPAA doesn’t actually mention telehealth, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply. The reason for the omission is that the HIPAA regulations were designed to be broad and flexible, in order to suit a wide variety of situations and changes in technology.
What Does Telehealth Include?
Before we dive in and cover how HIPAA can apply to telehealth, it’s important to talk about what telehealth actually is. Your organization may already be using telehealth without even knowing it.
Telehealth is a broad practice that involves the use of technology to deliver healthcare and related services. It most commonly refers to remote treatment (also known as telemedicine), but it actually encompasses much more. Telehealth also includes practices like intervention, monitoring, communication and education.
In What Situations Does HIPAA Apply to Telehealth?
HIPAA regulations apply to both covered entities, which are essentially those that are involved in the health field, and their business associates (BAs), which are the individuals or organizations that covered entities share data with. Covered entities must have business associates agreements (BAAs) with their BAs.
HIPAA law is relevant whenever electronic protected health information (ePHI) is being collected, processed, transmitted or stored.
According to the Privacy Rule, ePHI is any data that is both “individually identifiable” and concerns:
- An individual’s current, past or future health, whether it is mental or physical.
- Any treatment or healthcare provided to the individual.
- Any payment information related to healthcare, whether it is past, present or future.
When the HIPAA regulations talk about individually identifiable information, they refer to any data which either directly or indirectly could be used to identify a person. This includes things like:
- Contact details
- Address (physical or email)
- Social security number
- Biometric details
- License number
- IP address
- Any other characteristic that could uniquely identify an individual
To summarize, HIPAA applies to both organizations in the health field and any companies that they share data with (such as communications providers). The regulations are relevant whenever these organizations deal with information that involves an individual’s health, if it can also be used to identify them.
Your organization needs to abide by the regulations in any situation that meets the above criteria, whether they involve telehealth or not.
How Can HIPAA Apply to Telehealth?
Under HIPAA, both covered entities and their business associates must “Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all electronic protected health information the covered entity or business associate creates, receives, maintains, or transmits.”
They must protect against reasonably anticipated threats, uses and disclosures, ensuring that their employees also comply with the regulations. Organizations must conduct their own risk assessment to determine the appropriate technical, administrative and physical safeguards that need to be put in place to meet the HIPAA requirements.
Mechanisms for HIPAA compliance are either deemed “required” or “addressable”. Those aspects that are listed as “required” are mandatory, while the regulations are flexible when it comes to “addressable” items.
Covered entities and business associates must document the implementation process and record whether or not it would be “reasonable or appropriate” to implement each specification in their own circumstances.
When it comes to telehealth systems that deal with ePHI, these are some of the required technical specifications:
- Access control
- Unique user identification
- Emergency access procedures
- Audit controls
- Integrity protection procedures
- Authentication measures for individuals and entities
- Transmission security
The following are some of the addressable specifications:
- Automatic logoff
- Encryption and decryption
- Authentication mechanisms for ePHI
- Audit controls
How to Make Your Organization’s Telehealth Systems HIPAA-C
Developing and maintaining HIPAA-compliant telehealth systems is a relatively complex process. Many of our most commonly used communications systems, such as Skype or FaceTime, aren’t HIPAA-compliant by default, which makes it hard for organizations to find the right tools for the job.
The best way to implement both secure and compliant telehealth systems is to use a provider who specializes in this niche. All of LuxSci’s services are HIPAA-compliant, and we offer secure video, text and chat, on top of our email and other services. A HIPAA specialist makes it easy to both stay within the regulations and offer excellent telehealth services to your patients.