HIPAA Email Security Healthcare

HIPAA Email Security: A Guide for Healthcare Organizations

Sharing sensitive patient information via email goes hand in hand with hidden exposure risks that HIPAA regulations aim to ward off. Traditional email security standards often fall short of being a fail-safe mechanism for electronically protected health information (ePHI). This raises some pertinent questions:

  • How can healthcare providers talk to patients and business partners to comply with email security requirements?

  • What does it take to safeguard patient data exchanged through email?

This article is a must-read guide on email security in healthcare. It analyzes the regulatory complexities of HIPAA, outlines practical strategies for secure communications, and sheds insights into why your healthcare organization may need to take action. By the end of reading this guide, you’ll be able to make informed choices regarding your email practices.

Understanding HIPAA and its importance

HIPAA is a set of US rules governing patient records’ privacy and safety. These records can contain information on the person’s health conditions, medical services they have received over time, and more.

Not all medical facilities are obliged to fulfill email security HIPAA standards. If your entity doesn’t share patient-related information via email or only exchanges it for internal uses, you may be exempted from HIPAA rules. For a quick recap, they are established for:

  • Medical service providers: Think of facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and other organizations that specialize in providing healthcare services in the US.

  • Health plans: Are responsible for health insurance coverage and regulatory interactions with providers.

  • Clearinghouses: These companies process healthcare information exchanged between providers and insurers.

According to The HIPAA Journal’s Data Breach Report, data breaches have reached an alarming level. In 2023 alone, over 133 million records containing personally identifiable information (PII) were released without patients’ consent. This reinforces the importance of strong email protection to be embraced by providers, insurance companies, and clearinghouses. There’s no time to lose to prevent your business from being linked to an insufficient effort to fortify your email defenses and ensure compliance.

What do HIPAA email security rules focus on?

HIPAA stipulates that healthcare organizations must adopt appropriate measures to keep ePHI from exposure and leak risks as emails are sent. Such defensive action is required for:

  • Integrity: ePHI should not be changed during transmission or storage. The integrity of patient records and other medical data must rest on well-developed mechanisms that help identify and avert unauthorized modifications.

  • Confidentiality: If you are a healthcare organization looking to achieve compliance with HIPAA, you are obliged to guarantee that only authorized legal entities and people can access ePHI. This implies establishing specific controls.

  • Usability: HIPAA requires ePHI to be used only when necessary for a valid purpose, like monitoring the spread of diseases. This necessitates a reliable data backup and recovery system to set the foundation for ad-hoc access.

There should be no thin line between implementing measures for data usability within your organization and restricting access to patient records. You should enforce email access controls that won’t interfere with HIPAA rules.

The balance of HIPAA and email security solutions

Now that you are updated on the critical principles, it’s time to scrutinize practical solutions that apply to healthcare organizations on their way to strengthening HIPAA security for email.

Encryption

Email encryption is the linchpin of HIPAA compliance. It is like the safest door lock that keeps unprotected patients’ information from leaving your premises. Even if someone manages to access ePHI, it will not be readable or usable without the means of decrypting it.

Two primary encryption methods for HIPAA compliance are TLS and S/MIME. When implemented together, these protocols make up a comprehensive encryption mechanism. The former encrypts a communication channel as emails are sent and ensures the integrity of ePHI as it moves between email servers. The latter encrypts the message itself and contributes to the overall security of electronic communications.

Access controls

Access controls are enacted, and only authorized employees can send or receive patient information through email. They are required by HIPAA to make sure unauthorized medical or other specialists cannot view, modify, or otherwise interact with ePHI.

Access controls can be implemented through multi-factor authentication (MFA) and role-based permissions. Both security approaches pre-determine who is entitled to view patient-related information, when they are allowed to do so, and how they can interact or manage it so your entity remains compliant. Role-based access can be modified as new healthcare specialists are involved in the case or hired.

Email security awareness training

Awareness is half the battle. As part of HIPAA-compliant email security, you should train your staff and medical teams to recognize unreliable links, identify malware threats, and shield sensitive information. Systematic awareness-boosting sessions can equip your employees with the skills to spot and mitigate hazards that involve the misuse of patient data.

Email security awareness training doesn’t have to be too complex for medical professionals to understand. Reminding your employees of the importance of double-checking email addresses and the integrity of attachments can go a long way.

Business Associate Agreements (BAAs)

You can entrust all encryption processes, access controls, and other measures embraced for HIPAA-compliant email to your service provider. However, it’s vital to seal a BAA to rest assured that the provider takes HIPAA compliance as seriously as you do. You cannot outsource accountability.

The agreement will list a range of technical steps, solutions, mechanisms, and protocols applied by your provider for the protection of ePHI. It will also describe network configurations and server information so that you know what happens to an email containing patient records when it leaves your organization or appears in your mailbox.

Is securing patient communication a multi-layered approach?

You can encrypt emails and get on the same page with your provider, but this doesn’t mean your patient communication channel is 100% secure. Achieving absolute robustness requires a multi-layered approach. Here are some additional considerations:

  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP): DLP solutions are important for compliance purposes because they can red-flag and prevent the unauthorized transmission of sensitive data via email. They can minimize the risk of ePHI leaks, whether accidental or intentional.

  • Encryption policies: You are not required to encrypt every email you send. An encryption policy should be in place to describe what messages require encryption and how authorized users can decrypt them. This will help avoid confusion among your employees and the inefficient use of technological resources.

  • Audit logs: Audit logs enable you to follow a trail of interactions with ePHI, including the last modifications. They facilitate the way you can monitor access attempts and identify potential incidents while drawing attention to multiple access failures or other suspicious behaviors.

  • Incident response plan: A feasible incident response plan gives your healthcare organization the strategy to respond to a data breach. It details the steps to contain, analyze, and mitigate a security incident, with the goal of minimizing its impact.

The interplay of email-level solutions and internal policies enforced within your healthcare organization is the only surefire way to shield patient communications or interactions that involve ePHI.

It starts with a culture

Nurturing a culture of email security is just as critical as finding a reliable email service provider for HIPAA compliance. Here are some strategies you should consider:

  • Invest in training to stress the importance of secure email systems and best practices. Allocate time so your staff, doctors, and other medical professionals can learn to recognize breaches, handle sensitive data, and report doubtful actions.
  • Supportive leadership can be another pillar of your security culture. It shows employees your resolute commitment to HIPAA compliance and data protection while sending a strong message that your company goes the extra mile for ePHI integrity and confidentiality.

By adopting a multi-layered approach that combines robust technology solutions, policies, and a culture of safety awareness, you are better positioned to ensure compliance with HIPAA email security standards.

Why choose Spambrella for your HIPAA needs

While you cannot disregard the importance of healthcare email security solutions, you also need a reliable partner to navigate them. Spambrella is proud to become your partner. We can address the needs of healthcare organizations with:

  • Advanced threat protection: Our DLP, encryption, and ransomware safeguards can build an adequate defense against malware attacks and other email threats that specifically target healthcare organizations.

  • Regulatory compliance: Spambrella solutions are developed for the email encryption HIPAA standards you’re trying to embrace. Spambrella helps you avoid ePHI exposure issues and the fines you may face if your patient communication is unsecured.

  • Enhanced user awareness: Implementing the right email security solution is one thing; fostering security awareness training within your healthcare organization is another. Spambrella can provide HIPAA-compliant email security training in a bid to empower medical specialists, staff, and other email users to follow the best electronic communication practices.

Contact Spambrella to learn more about our cloud-based solutions, become HIPAA-compliant, and see how we can help future-proof your company’s email communications. We are happy to explain the technical implementations you may not fully understand and serve any organization aiming to heighten their email security in the healthcare arena. BAA’s are prepared and ready for you to review before any trial service enablement.

Further reading:

Ransomware Attack Cause of Wood Ranch Medical Permanent Closure

Michigan Practice Brookside ENT Closes Doors Following Ransomware Attack

Why is Security Awareness Training Needed?