How to make HIPAA compliant email stress-free for nurses

Nurses email communication

Just like all medical practitioners, nurses must understand HIPAA compliance and be HIPAA compliant in their communication with or about patients. Nurses play key roles in proper patient care and in safeguarding protected health information (PHI). They deal with private information daily and must be aware of how to communicate it.

SEE ALSOPII and PHI best practices: How healthcare organizations should handle sensitive information

Patients and their healthcare providers need to give and receive information clearly and securely. HIPAA compliant email is one of the best ways to meet those needs. However, a HIPAA breach, intentional or accidental, is a big concern for all medical professionals and can cause undue stress on an already overworked staff. HIPAA compliant secure email provides a top option for healthcare professionals, especially nurses.

What is HIPAA?

HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is U.S. legislation that protects the rights and privacy of patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights regulates and enforces the act. HIPAA consists of five sections (or titles), with Title II being the most referenced.

Title II sets the policies and procedures for safeguarding PHI, whether in paper or electronic (ePHI) form, and includes:

  • Privacy Rule (2003): covers the protection of PHI as well as compliance standards
  • Security Rule (2005): sets required security standards to protect ePHI
  • Enforcement Rule (2006): sets the rules for enforcing HIPAA and penalizing non-compliant organizations
  • HITECH Act (2009): promotes the adoption and meaningful use of technology in healthcare
  • Breach Notification Rule (2009): sets the procedures for reporting breaches
  • Omnibus Final Rule (2013): incorporates HITECH further by improving privacy protections

These rules and amendments strengthen and further elucidate the building blocks necessary for patient privacy and security. And, of course, patient care.

LEARN ABOUTPatient engagement and HIPAA compliance: What you need to know

What nurses need to know about HIPAA

Like all medical practitioners, nurses must follow HIPAA guidelines to protect a patient’s privacy. And nurses are privy to PHI for numerous patients at any given time. Nurses constantly look after multiple records and patients when working in a small clinic or a large hospital.

SEE ALSOThe role of nurses in HIPAA compliance, healthcare security

Nurses are at the forefront of handling, managing and disclosing PHI:

  • During treatment
  • To facilitate payment
  • When authorized by a patient
  • For disaster notification or national security
  • For law enforcement, in some instances

Such disclosure could be to patients, their family members or other medical providers. It may also be for general HIPAA compliant documentation. And because of this, nurses must understand and follow HIPAA regulations.

HIPAA compliant email

HIPAA compliant email must meet the HIPAA requirements for the safe communication of PHI electronically. Sending and receiving an email with PHI is not a HIPAA violation if essential safeguards are correctly set.

RELATEDWhy healthcare providers should use HIPAA compliant email

The Security Rule puts safeguards into three categories: administrative, physical and technical. For email, this could mean setting policies and procedures (administrative), verifying workstation/computer controls (physical) and monitoring login controls (technical). The idea is to restrict access, monitor use and always ensure PHI integrity and message accountability.

One critical aspect of email security is encryption. HIPAA labels encryption as “addressable” and states that it must be used if it “is a reasonable and appropriate safeguard.” Unfortunately, though, there is no appropriate alternative to encryption. Therefore, healthcare organizations must take sufficient steps to secure PHI at rest (in storage) and in motion (in transit).

What are common ways to violate HIPAA with email?

HIPAA violation occurs when a healthcare professional does not properly safeguard PHI due to either negligence or an accident. HIPAA rules exist not only to stop such violations but also to hold non-compliant healthcare practitioners liable.

SEE ALSOPreventing security breaches in healthcare

How could a nurse violate HIPAA with email?

Regarding email communications, there are several ways to violate HIPAA accidentally. For example, a nurse may write an email and include PHI without a patient’s permission. In another example, a nurse may write an email at their station and be disrupted by an emergency and walk away to attend to it. Walking away to take care of an emergency with an email that includes PHI open and visible is classified as an accidental disclosure and a reportable HIPAA violation.

However, there are also intentional violations, such as curiosity-driven disclosure. For example, when the news of someone well-known getting care is shared outside of actual patient care. 

LEARN MOREPotential coronavirus-related HIPAA violations

Of course, the disclosure could be purposeful and sometimes even harmful.

Finally, there are breaches due to an organization not utilizing strong email security, which can lead to a cyberattack. In any of these incidences, using HIPAA compliant email would have helped.

Do all nurses need to use HIPAA compliant email?

Nurses always need to use a HIPAA compliant email solution when sending PHI.

The vast majority of nurses need a secure solution that is easy to use and does not add to their workload. For example, easily sending secure emails containing appointment reminders, treatment information, diagnosis or prescriptions can help create an efficient and smooth workflow.

LEARN ABOUTPermitted use and disclosure of protected health information (PHI) under HIPAA

And something that cannot be forgotten: nursing and healthcare is stressful and tiring. When work is long and hard, it is easy to overlook security measures that stop a breach from occurring. By using a secure email provider like Paubox, staff or provider errors are taken out of the equation.

6 HIPAA compliant email use best practices for nurses

  1. Have a fundamental understanding of HIPAA and PHI.
  2. Go through employee HIPAA awareness training.
  3. Learn to exercise caution when accessing information from multiple devices, including mobile. 
  4. Never share passwords or login credentials.
  5. Pause before sending an email and ask, “Does the recipient need this information to do their job? What is the minimum amount I can send to help a patient?”
  6. Use a secure email provider for HIPAA compliance, like Paubox, for all email communication.

READ MOREWhy cybersecurity education is key to protecting your medical practice

How can Paubox HIPAA compliant email help nurses care for patients?

Paubox Email Suite takes healthcare emails seriously by providing nurses with an easy way to communicate securely with patients. 

Our HITRUST-CSF certified solution is effortless and lets nurses focus on caring for patients without adding to the stress of digital communication barriers and HIPAA compliance regulations.

No additional passwords or portals are necessary, and there is no need to change your existing platform.

RELATEDTop 7 things you didn’t know about Paubox Email Suite

Paubox Email Suite enables HIPAA compliant email by default and encrypts every outbound message automatically. And our Plus and Premium plans come equipped with innovative, proactive inbound tools like Zero Trust Email and ExecProtect

There is no reason to hesitate. Let Paubox do the heavy lifting when it comes to HIPAA compliance and emailing your patients so you can focus on the important job of nursing. 

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Anne-Marie Sullivan

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