4 Things Health Tech Founders Need to Know About HIPAA Email Compliance

As a founder of a health tech company, you know that email communication is key. To keep your customers engaged with your product or service, email notifications are highly effective. Beyond that, you need to be able to quickly and easily get in touch with people on the fly – customers, patients, and your team – so that you can keep everyone in the loop and up to speed. 

But the tricky thing is, emailing electronic personal health information (ePHI) poses pretty big risks if you’re not careful. ePHI is a broad term that covers any individually identifiable health data that’s created, received, maintained, or transmitted electronically. This can include everything from medical histories and diagnoses to treatment plans, test results, and insurance information.

Whether through negligence, human error, or a malicious cyberattack, any leak of this sensitive patient data via email has the potential to bring serious consequences to your company. We’re talking hefty fines and significant reputational damage – not to mention the ethical implications of compromising patient privacy.

Under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, there are strict rules about how ePHI must be handled, and email communication is no exception. So, before your team continues to fire off potentially emails that may be putting your company is danger, let’s take a look at four crucial aspects of HIPAA email compliance that every health tech founder needs to be aware of.

4 Things Health Tech Founders Need to Know About HIPAA Email Compliance

Email Encryption Is Essential for Protecting ePHI

First and foremost, it’s important to note that unless you implement special configurations, the standard email service providers that many of us rely on in our day-to-day lives aren’t going to cut it when it comes to managing ePHI. 

Emails services like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo or the iOS Mail app don’t necessarily have the necessary encryption protections to scramble messages while in transit, as required by HIPAA. In fact, even many of the business-level solutions lack these protections too. 

In theory, this means that any bad actor with the right tools and know-how has the potential to intercept and exploit emails containing ePHI if they decide to snoop around your network. 

With this in mind, the first rule of HIPAA email compliance is that any message containing ePHI requires sophisticated encryption. The good news is that there are various technologies that encode and scramble data so only the intended recipients can decrypt and view it with the right keys. 

Employee Training on Email Security Is a Must

Okay, so you’ve added encryption to your company email. That’s a great start. Now you need to turn your focus to your team members – particularly their email habits and knowledge of basic cybersecurity best practices. The unfortunate reality is that over 88% of data breaches result from human error.

In other words, insider threats, intentional or unintentional, pose far more of a risk to your HIPAA compliance than any third-party cybercriminal does. It’s just too easy for an employee to absentmindedly mistype an email address and send out private health records to the wrong recipient. Or perhaps they might fall for a phishing scam and inadvertently click on a malicious link and infect your network with malware. These kinds of slip-ups happen all the time.

So on top of encrypted email, you also need solid training to take control of employee security awareness. Onboarding is step one, as all new hires need crystal clarity on policies for handling sensitive information – especially ePHI. Ideally, you should continue reinforcing secure email habits through refreshers every few months, too.

Make sure to tailor your training examples specifically to the types of ePHI that your teams handle. Walk through scenarios such as how to correctly label sensitive attachments, double check recipients, report suspicious messages, and so on. You can also run simulated phishing attacks to test comprehension. While this may feel a little overboard, it’s better to trip up employees in a safe practice run than learn the hard way after a costly data breach.

Data Protection Policies Are the Backbone of HIPAA 

Now that your team is clued up with cybersecurity best practices, it’s time to put some backend policies in place to bolster up your defenses. The thing is, despite HIPAA’s clear rules and regulations, each company (and individual) may have their own interpretation of how to cater to them.

As such, health tech companies should put clearly defined policies in places every employee knows what they are expected to do in any given situation where ePHI is involved. This will become the backbone of your organizational privacy and compliance practices. 

These documents should outline operational concerns like secure email usage guidelines, encryption protocols, access controls for ePHI systems and data, secure storage procedures, and clear steps for reporting suspected breaches.

Given the value of the data that health tech founders hold, it’s a good idea for all employees to review the policies and provide written acknowledgment of their understanding. Also, whenever you roll out new features or data handling processes, be sure to keep your policies updated.

Secure Device Disposal Is Non-Negotiable

We have covered a lot of ground around email protection, training, and policies. But data security doesn’t end there. Your obligations also continue through the entire device lifecycle – including the dreaded cleanup phase, when equipment gets old and becomes redundant. Unfortunately, simply tossing aging laptops or smartphones away without wiping sensitive data makes them potential access points and vulnerabilities for data breaches down the line. 

With this in mind, let’s quickly jump back to the policies that we mentioned. Here, you also need to outline the clearly defined procedures for properly destroying data across all old hardware.

There are a few different ways you can go about this. First (and probably the best method) is to wipe all devices to the Department of Defense standards. Second, physically destroy all drives and hardware components (this means you cannot resell). Third, there are certified electronics recycling services that guarantee ePHI destruction. While these may be difficult to find, they might be worth the hassle.

The right disposal processes completely eliminate risks of unauthorized data access from old and soon-to-be-retired equipment. And wrapping up those last details completes your full, end-to-end security protections.

Final Words

Follow these four foundations involving encryption, training, policies, and hardware disposal, and you’ll be way ahead of the curve compared to most startup founders just diving into the regulated waters of healthcare technology.

Yes, HIPAA requires more work than just sending emails through Gmail. However, establishing disciplined protections for patient data builds essential public trust and confidence in your company as you handle some of people’s most sensitive information. The effort is well worth avoiding fines, disastrous brand reputation damage, and lawsuits down the road.

FG Editorial Team
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