Using email to send protected health information is tempting considering the ease and speed email has brought to communications. With the inefficiencies and delays caused by fax, phone, and mail, you and I can easily conclude that email will boost productivity in healthcare. But as you probably know, email is a threat to confidentiality when used to exchange patient information.Asynchronous communication like email can improve health outcomes and increase overall efficiency of the healthcare system. However, custodians of patient information have a duty to protect the privacy of that information by keeping it confidential and email does not satisfy this critical requirement.There is a secure and compliant alternative to email in healthcare. We’ll talk about that in a minute. First, let’s examine the risks of using email and standard industry guidelines for email use in healthcare that limit practicality.
Key risks of email in healthcare:
Interception: Email does not secure patient information because email sends information across the Internet with no way to track where it went or who accessed or captured patient data contained within the message.Inference: The name and nature of your practice can be considered protected patient information if it reveals aspects of their health treatment such as psychiatry, oncology, and other specialties.Loss: Most email providers are under no obligation to store your messages and provide access for as long as regulations require. If you’re using email for direct patient messaging and your email providers sutters or refuses access, all records of those interactions are lost and you are out of compliance with privacy law.
How can email be safe in healthcare?Health industry guidelines recommend limiting use of email to exchange patient information to not include clinical details. Transmitting clinical details is the most effective use of an email-like communication service.The guidelines also explain that you should consider your circumstances (such as the nature of your practice) and decide case by case if email is appropriate. You’d save time and productivity using a service you knew was protecting any information you include.Encryption is often mentioned when people discuss emailing patient records. Encrypted email is difficult to set up end-to-end and many service providers have gotten in trouble for advertising encryption that isn’t really there. You’ll have to make sure that any outsourced encryption/encrypted email provider agrees to a contract compliant with regulatory requirements such as those outlined in the Health Information Act (an Information Manager Agreement).One big challenge of encryption is that sender and receiver both need an encryption key or install similar software which can double or triple the administrative work required for communication. Encryption programs often require the installation and management of additional software that can impede access for sensitive patient populations. Further, encryption does not keep emails from being intercepted and even sophisticated encryption is vulnerable to hacks.It’s important to note that encryption is only one aspect of compliant communication. Privacy regulations obligate additional policies, protections, and procedures to ensure patient information is exchanged responsibly.Other advice in guidelines is to explain to patients you will not accept emails from them that contain detailed clinical information. Research shows that patients typically prefer email-like communication over phone and in-office visits when connecting with their clinic. You can strengthen patient relationship and increase capacity to deliver care by enabling secure email-like communications.
The administrative burden of traditional email in healthcare:
Compliant use of email in a healthcare clinic to share protected information requires policies and training that restrict use. In those cases you’re relying on the judgement of clinic staff with each email sent or received. You’ll likely end up having many repetitive conversations with patients that inadvertently share their protected health information through email simply by replying to your messages that were initially sent in compliance with regulations.
One simple solution to improve productivity and share patient records in compliance with regulations:
Using a secure-email service like Brightsquid Secure-Mail solves the problems of traditional email and delivers the benefits of asynchronous communication. These types of services mimic the functionality of email but protect patient information in compliance with privacy regulations. With Secure-Mail you can enable staff and clinicians with direct patient messaging and be confident that protected information is secure every time.You’ll also be able to provide more detail in messages which can greatly increase productivity by reducing the number of exchanges. This type of compliant healthcare communication also improves clinical effectiveness because patients can refer to treatment plans and notes to be more active in their own care.It’s clear that electronic asynchronous communication is beneficial to healthcare. We can help reduce costs while improving outcomes. The crux is to implement services that accelerate communication while also protecting patient information.
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