HIPAA Email Compliance Challenges

5 HIPAA Email Compliance Challenges Healthcare Business Face and How to Tackle Them

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Because the healthcare industry needs to store high volumes of patients’ sensitive health information, businesses operating in this vertical are often targeted by hackers. What’s more, service providers frequently need to transmit medical information to each other and to patients, putting that data even further at risk. 

Studies show that cybersecurity attacks in the healthcare industry have surged over the past few years, especially as care providers have increased remote operations. In many cases, health information professionals have been unable to contain data breaches on patient records. 

Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) initiated an investigation related to a cyberattack targeting UnitedHealthcare Group’s Change Healthcare. Announcing the investigation, OCR’s leadership also reiterated the significance of HIPAA compliance in healthcare businesses. The importance of being committed to safeguarding the privacy of protected health information (PHI) can’t be understated. 

Among its key provisions, HIPAA’s regulations regarding email communication play a key role in maintaining confidentiality and integrity. According to the guidelines published by the Department for Health and Human Services, HIPAA email compliance calls for vigilantly controlling access to PHI, monitoring how PHI is transmitted via email, ensuring data integrity at rest, and protecting it from unauthorized access during transit. 

However, HIPAA email compliance is more challenging than it sounds, and many organizations struggle with it. In this article, we will highlight these challenges and suggest effective strategies for healthcare organizations to tackle them.

HIPAA Email Compliance Challenges

Any email that includes PHI and is sent by an entity governed by HIPAA is an email that needs to be HIPAA compliant. Whether you run a clinic, nursing home, pharmacy, hospital, testing lab, or health plan, you need to check the compliance list. Since you may come across several challenges while doing so, knowing them will give you a head start. 

Here are a few reasons why HIPAA compliance can be hard for businesses.

Encryption Pitfalls

The biggest challenge organizations encounter relates to encryption pitfalls. Ideally, emails containing sensitive PHI should be encrypted at rest and in transit. 

Encryption renders data unreadable even in the event of a breach. However, employees have been known to accidentally skip this step, leading to security risks during transmission from one server to another. 

Lack of Viewer Authorization 

Another reason why HIPAA email compliance is hard for healthcare businesses is that it is not always possible to vet the recipients of emails. According to HIPAA mandates, emails containing PHI should be accessible only to authorized parties.

Unfortunately, in organizations running with a huge workforce and multiple departments, implementing access controls can be challenging. Strong authentication and permission procedures must be in place to guarantee that PHI in emails is only accessed by those who are meant to see it. This can require a great deal of technological know-how and continuous work to accomplish.

Complex Compliance Requirements

Following a complicated set of rules makes HIPAA compliance difficult for organizations. The Security Rule, Privacy Rule, and Breach Notification Rule are a few of them. Additionally, companies need to get informed consent for email communication with PHI from the patients.

Consent documents have to be prepared carefully, as they must outline what information will be communicated, who can access it, and measures used to protect it. Further, patients should be given an option to decline this communication method. It is easier said than done to put these regulations into action.

Managing Audit Trails 

HIPAA requires organizations to create and maintain audit trails for PHI access for their patients to see at any point. That makes audit trails an integral part of HIPAA email compliance.

Tracking who sent and received the emails and accessed what PHI within the emails can be challenging. The sheer volume of data a company hosts in its email systems makes it even harder. 

Lack of Compliance Awareness among Employees

Employees lacking a proper understanding of HIPAA requirements may unintentionally violate regulations. For example, they may send PHI through unsecured channels or overlook encryption protocols.

Additionally, the ongoing changes in guidelines make it hard for employees to keep pace despite their best efforts. For example, the 2024 revisions to HIPAA’s guidelines include changes to the maximum allowed time for providing PHI access, stronger restrictions on transfer of ePHI to third parties, and allowances for patients to inspect PHI in person.

Overcoming HIPAA Email Compliance Challenges

While HIPAA email compliance may sound like a difficult task, the effort is worthwhile. It can save your organization from penalties, loss of patient trust, and reputational damage. Fortunately, following a few simple best practices can help you overcome HIPAA email compliance challenges.

Encryption Solutions

Implementing encryption is the first step in securing email communications for an organization. According to a 2022 report, 62% of organizations relied on encryption for cloud security control amid the pandemic. It was the most common method employed and continues to be popular today. A robust encryption protocol can be effective enough to protect PHI from unauthorized access.

Employee Training and Awareness

Many American healthcare employees have never completed cybersecurity awareness training. These are the ones who are most likely to fall short on the HIPAA email compliance front. You can overcome this by investing in comprehensive training programs to educate your employees. These should include email security best practices, HIPAA regulations, and the importance of safeguarding PHI.

Access Controls and Monitoring

Access controls can go a long way in restricting unauthorized access to PHI within a healthcare email system. You must also regularly monitor email communications for compliance violations to prevent risks and errors.

Secure Email Platforms

A HIPAA-compliant email platform should be next on your checklist when it comes to ensuring compliance for your organization. Fortunately, you can find several platforms that ensure secure patient emails for the healthcare industry. When you look for one, consider advanced security features, such as encryption, access controls, automated spam blocking, and email access auditing.

Incident Response Planning

An accidental or intentional HIPAA violation in email communications is a risk every healthcare company faces, no matter how effective their controls are. Having a robust incident response is the best way to manage and mitigate security incidents such as data breaches or HIPAA violations. Even though you may go wrong with compliance, if you’re ready, you can reduce the impact of the damage. 

Following the Guidelines for Success

In conclusion, HIPAA email compliance is a key aspect of safeguarding patient privacy, maintaining trust, and avoiding regulatory penalties in healthcare entities. Implementing the strategies discussed in this article can help you address these hindrances and prioritize HIPAA compliance in email communication. With this, you can do more than protect patient information. You can also uphold your ethical obligation and ensure the integrity of your operations.

Also Read: How To Choose The Right Secure Email Service For Your Business



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