When it comes to HIPAA compliance, there are a lot of boxes to check. One of the many that could be overlooked is the use of email. Essentially, any emails that contain protected health information (PHI) and are sent by a HIPAA-covered entity or business associate, needs to comply with the relevant regulations.

In practice, that means that most email communications that healthcare providers send to or about patients have to be extra secure. This includes emails confirming appointments, sending patient health records to a specialist or another healthcare provider, submitting healthcare bills, and more.

The main HIPAA requirement for such emails is that all messages and attachments are securely encrypted, both in transit and at rest. The entity also needs to have signed a business associate agreement (BAA) with its email provider that confirms that the provider will act in accordance with HIPAA regulations.

It all sounds achievable enough. However, your employees are human, and humans make mistakes, like forgetting to manually encrypt an email or saving an attachment in an unsecured folder. These mistakes can be extremely damaging for your company.

A HIPAA violation could result in fines, erode patient trust, and hurt your reputation and your business. That’s why you want to do all you can to ensure HIPAA email compliance and prevent these errors from taking place.

Here are five ways that healthcare providers can ensure HIPAA email compliance, every time.

1. Ensure everything is encrypted by default.

Healthcare providers should already be using industry-optimized, HIPAA-compliant email platforms that deliver complete encryption and other HIPAA-required features. The best way to avoid a PHI breach over email is to enforce encryption as the default for every message.

Don’t leave encryption as a manual process that each employee needs to remember to enable before hitting send. It creates a high risk of someone forgetting to do so at a moment of stress and pressure. Instead, make encryption automatic for every email that goes out of your servers.

This way, even if the email gets intercepted, all the PHI data will be unreadable to unauthorized recipients.

2. Set comprehensive policies and procedures.

It’s vital for every healthcare provider to establish a clear set of policies and procedures around HIPAA-compliant email communication. This way, you can ensure consistency and adherence to regulatory requirements.

Defining coherent parameters in a comprehensible way gives your employees the knowledge and resources they need to communicate effectively, while maintaining patient privacy and confidentiality.

Your policies for sending PHI via email should cover issues like which types of information you can transmit, authorized recipients, encryption protocols, permitted storage locations and conditions, and permissible uses of email for patient communication. For example, default encryption doesn’t help if someone includes PHI details in the subject line, which are usually visible in email previews.

3. Conduct effective and frequent training.

Cybersecurity experts often emphasize that your employees are your weakest link, and that holds true for HIPAA email compliance too. Thorough training and monitoring are vital to enforce compliance with all your carefully-formulated email communication guidelines and policies.

Training programs should focus on educating staff members on the consequences of HIPAA non-compliance, potential risks associated with mishandling PHI, how to recognize PHI data, and the proper procedures for secure email transmission. Ideally, the training should be interactive to boost employee engagement, and repeated on a regular basis to aid memory retention and ensure that employees are up-to-date with your latest protocols.

It’s best to incorporate reminders in the flow of work as well as frequent training sessions. Elements like pop-up windows, wizards, and boxes that need to be checked before sending an email can all help prevent errors from occuring.

4. Implement access controls.

Comprehensive access controls reduce the risk of email non-compliance that result in PHI breaches.

Methods such as strong, unique passwords or passphrases, biometric verification, and/or one-time passcodes can provide stringent authentication measures that confirm the identity of users accessing email accounts containing PHI.

At the same time, it’s important for healthcare providers to regularly review and update user access privileges, to ensure that only authorized individuals can access and share PHI via email. This involves assigning role-based permissions tailored to each staff member’s responsibilities, and enforcing the principle of least privilege, which limits user access to only the information necessary to perform their job duties.

5. Deploy Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions are designed to monitor, detect, and prevent the unauthorized transmission or sharing of sensitive information via email, including PHI. They use advanced algorithms to analyze email content in real-time, identifying patterns or keywords indicative of PHI and automatically applying encryption, blocking transmission, or triggering alerts when they detect it in a non-compliant context.

DLP solutions offer granular control over email communication. Healthcare providers can use them to define and enforce policies like restrictions on the types of files that can be attached to emails, limitations on who can receive PHI, and rules for handling sensitive information based on contextual factors such as sender, recipient, or email content.

What’s more, DLP tools often include reporting and auditing capabilities. Healthcare organizations can use them to track and monitor email activity, identify potential security incidents or compliance violations, and demonstrate due diligence in HIPAA compliance.

HIPAA email compliance doesn’t need to be a headache

Making sure that all your email communication complies with HIPAA regulations is a serious issue, but it doesn’t have to turn into a source of stress. A combination of effective tools, policies, and training can set up a system that minimizes the risks of non-compliance as much as possible, while reducing the strain on your compliance teams.