I rocked the boat with some of my medical friends when I emailed them my blog post, Can I Text ePHI?, which basically told them that they could NOT text or email patients without encrypting or securing the data. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. HIPAA states it is illegal to use unsecure networks and unencrypted communication methods like texting. Let’s dig further into why sending PHI via mobile devices is a HIPAA “No-No”, making it a hot button for doctors and the HHS (Health & Human Services).
First off, the penalties for non-compliance are steep and ignorance is no excuse because HHS has produced a lot of content on the subject. In fact, a single HIPAA violation due to ignorance can cost up to $50,000!
Per Health Information Technology’s Guide to Privacy and Security of Electronic Health Information,
The Security Rule requires that when you send ePHI to your patient, you send it through a secure method and that you have a reasonable belief that it will be delivered to the intended recipient.
In this environment of more online access and great demand by consumers for near real-time communications, you should be careful to use a communication mechanism that allows you to implement the appropriate Security Rule safeguards, such as an email system that encrypts messages or requires patient login, as with a patient portal.
Furthermore, if you used Meaningful Use tax credits to digitize your medical records:
You should be able to communicate online with your patients. The EHR system should have the appropriate mechanisms in place to support compliance with the Security Rule. You might want to avoid other types of online or electronic communication (e.g., texting) unless you first confirm that the communication method meets, or is exempt from, the Security Rule.
Additional education from HHS states you need to put safeguards in place to protect PHI on mobile devices from these risks:
- Lost mobile device
- Stolen mobile device
- Download virus or malware
- Shared mobile device
- Unsecured Wi-Fi Network
HHS even provides these methods that you can implement to better safeguard PHI from these risks:
- Setting strong passwords
- Encrypting data
- Using automatic log offs
- Requiring a unique user ID
- Enabling remote wipe
- Locking the device
- Keeping the device with you
- Using a screen shield
- Refraining from sharing the mobile device
- Registering the mobile device
- Installing a firewall
- Using secure Wi-Fi connections
- Researching mobile applications
A good IT firm can help you create policies and safeguards to protect PHI when accessing, transmitting, receiving, or storing patient information on mobile devices. That firm should also follow and educate you on the guidelines provided by HHS.