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Safeguarding Patient Privacy With HIPAA-Compliant Telehealth Platforms

June 22, 2024

HIPAA compliant telehealth platforms

With telehealth services becoming the norm, it is a new era in healthcare accessibility.

However, healthcare service providers must strike a delicate balance between embracing innovation and prioritizing protecting patient data. 

Enter Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-compliant telehealth platforms — the digital guardians of medical confidentiality.

Healthcare providers who wish to offer telehealth services must ensure they’re using a secure platform that’s also HIPAA-compliant, which will help them shield sensitive medical data from unauthorized access. Selecting the right HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform is a critical decision that can make or break your practice's reputation and patients' trust.

So, let’s examine HIPAA's significance in healthcare and what you need to know about HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms.

Understanding the relevance of HIPAA to healthcare data

The HIPAA was enacted in 1996 to protect the privacy and security of patient healthcare data. This act requires all healthcare providers to safeguard their patients' confidential information.

Data security is critical when handling patient information.

Patient data frequently contains sensitive details such as personal and medical history, diagnostic results, and treatment plans. If misused or exploited, this information can lead to serious consequences for the patient, provider, and practice.

Now that telehealth services are increasingly commonplace, healthcare providers are under pressure to ensure their online platforms are HIPAA compliant.

In this context, HIPAA compliance means the telehealth platform sticks to the standards set by HIPAA regarding data security and privacy. This includes technical safeguards provided by the software, like encryption and access controls, as well as administrative safeguards, such as data management training for staff.

These are all important measures for healthcare providers to protect their patients' data and maintain trust and credibility. Failing to do so can result in legal consequences.

The cost of HIPAA compliance

Telehealth is nothing short of revolutionary when it comes to providing convenient and accessible healthcare options for patients.

Costs associated with using a secure HIPAA-compliant software platform may include subscription fees for HIPAA-compliant video conferencing software or the cost of integrating the system into a practice's existing infrastructure. 

One way to save on costs is to choose a telehealth service that’s part of a practice management system. That way, your practice administration can be managed within a single platform.

There could also be training costs. Your staff and providers may need to undergo specific training so that everyone is properly informed on HIPAA regulations and procedures.

Staff may already be aware of what HIPAA means for in-person visits, but telehealth (especially when working from home) brings unique considerations and protocols to ensure privacy.

Balancing cost with security needs

While there may be expenses associated with HIPAA compliance, the cost of a data breach or non-compliance penalties can far outweigh the investment. The average cost of a healthcare data breach in 2023 was nearly $11 million, which means investing in secure telehealth systems and protocols can help save a practice from potential financial ruin.

Security and compliance should always be a priority. The best way to manage costs while ensuring the security of your platform is to thoroughly research your options before committing to a specific provider.

Top security features of HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms

When choosing a HIPAA-compliant software platform, you'll need to prioritize security features that protect both patient data and the integrity of the software itself. 

We've listed the most essential features below, all of which are needed to maintain the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of patient information.

End-to-end encryption

End-to-end encryption is a fundamental feature of any HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform.

This security measure encrypts data at its origin and only decrypts it at its intended destination, preventing unauthorized access during transmission. It’s particularly important in telehealth communications, where sensitive conversations and data are exchanged over potentially insecure networks.

Secure patient information storage with access controls

Your HIPAA-compliant software platform of choice should offer secure storage solutions that include strict access controls. These controls help to restrict data access to authorized personnel only, protecting patient information from being accessed by unauthorized users.

The ability to finely tune access rights based on user roles will also help your practice minimize the risk of data breaches and misuse.

User management with individual permissions

For a user management function to be effective, the platform should allow you to configure individual account permissions.

This will help you control who has access to sensitive data, how much they can view or edit, and what actions they can perform on the system. With individual permissions, you can assign different levels of access to staff members based on their roles and responsibilities within your practice.

Activity monitoring and logging

Activity monitoring and logging are must-have features for maintaining HIPAA compliance.

These tools track user activities on the telehealth platform, including logins, data access, and modifications. A clear, auditable trail will help your practice promptly detect and respond to potential security incidents. 

Compliance with privacy regulations (HIPAA)

Your telehealth platform should have HIPAA compliance built into its core features. This means the platform has been designed and tested to meet all of the requirements outlined in HIPAA regulations.

It will make your life much easier as a healthcare provider, knowing the platform has already been vetted and deemed secure for storing and transmitting patient data.

Independently audited security evaluations (SOC2, HIPAA, ISO 27001, etc.)

Third-party evaluations for security standards like HIPAA and ISO 27001 provide an added layer of assurance that your telehealth platform meets the highest standards for security and privacy.

These evaluations involve rigorous auditing processes to ensure the platform is secure, reliable, and compliant with relevant regulations.

Consequences of choosing a platform lacking these features

Choosing a telehealth platform without essential security features can lead to serious problems for your healthcare practice. It raises the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access to sensitive information. It also exposes you to the dangers of not meeting HIPAA regulations, which could result in substantial fines and legal challenges.

Once patient trust is breached due to compromised data, it's tough to rebuild. That’s why selecting a platform that adheres to these security standards is important to maintaining a trusted and professional healthcare practice.

Additional healthcare privacy essentials to maintain data security in healthcare

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to maintaining data security and privacy in healthcare. 

Your practice must first have a data and premises security policy outlining how it will protect patient information and maintain compliance with regulations like HIPAA.

This policy should take into account your telehealth platform and any other systems or devices that are used to store and access patient data. 

List of security measures to implement for additional protection against a data breach.

Source: Power Diary

Implementing the following security measures for additional protection against a data breach is very important.

  • Individual user accounts: Each user should be held responsible for their own actions. Individual accounts make it easier to trace who is accessing patient data.
  • Strong passwords: Passwords should be unique, complex, and regularly changed to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Access controls: The platform should have robust access controls, ensuring only authorized personnel can access sensitive patient data. This includes the use of strong authentication methods, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA).
  • Firewall: A firewall acts as a barrier between the healthcare platform and external networks, preventing unauthorized access.
  • Antivirus software: Regularly updating antivirus software helps identify and eliminate potential malware or viruses that could compromise data security.
  • Regular updates: Both the operating system and any installed software should be regularly updated to patch any known vulnerabilities.
  • Password-protected screensaver: An automatic screensaver with password protection adds an extra layer of security in case a user steps away from their device without logging out.

Security best practices for HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms

Security should always be a top priority when choosing a telehealth platform for your practice. If you’re serious about protecting the safety and privacy of patient data, you'll need a platform with robust security protocols in place. These protocols should include technical solutions like encryption, firewalls, and multi-factor authentication. 

Another important factor of data security is ensuring that your chosen platform undergoes regular external assessments. This means that a third party conducts thorough tests and evaluations to identify any potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the platform's security measures.

Your chosen platform may carry out self-assessments; however, these may not accurately reflect its true level of security. For an extra layer of assurance, an impartial and certified security expert should conduct regular external audits.

Risk assessments and security audits

Both risk assessments and security audits are necessary for the protection and privacy of patient data. Risk assessments help identify areas of weakness that may be exploited by hackers or cybercriminals.

When done regularly, they help the platform implement better security measures, strengthen its defenses, and reduce the chance of a security breach. This could include implementing encryption, firewalls, or other technical solutions.

Regular security audits are also extremely useful for maintaining a secure HIPAA-compliant software platform. They can identify potential vulnerabilities that may have been missed during the risk assessment process.

A critical aspect of security audits is penetration testing, or “pen testing.” Penetration testing involves simulating a real-world cyber attack on the platform to identify weaknesses or gaps in its defenses. This allows the platform to address these issues before malicious actors exploit them.

In addition to regular risk assessments and security audits, telehealth platforms should also have incident response plans in place.

These plans outline the necessary steps to take in case they experience a security or data breach. These could include identifying the source of the attack, containing any damage, and notifying affected parties.

A well-constructed incident response plan should minimize the impact of a security breach and allow your practice to recover and resume operations quickly.

Data protection and recovery

A robust data protection and recovery strategy is essential for HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms.

This strategy should include regular backups and an extensive disaster recovery plan to ensure business continuity in the event of unforeseen circumstances.

Disaster recovery

A disaster recovery plan (DRP) is a detailed document that outlines the procedures for restoring business operations to their state before the disaster occurred. It usually includes strategies for recovering critical systems and processes and identifies key personnel responsible for executing the plan.

The main goal of a DRP is to maintain the continuity of critical business operations in the event of a disaster, whether it's a natural or a man-made incident.

Typically, it includes processes for transferring control from the designated recovery team back to the usual management team once operations have been restored. F

or example, a ransomware attack encrypts the platform's servers, making patient data inaccessible. The DRP outlines how to isolate the attack, restore data from secure backups stored offsite, and resume operations with minimal downtime.

A well-defined DRP helps telehealth platforms and HIPAA-compliant scheduling software to mitigate risks and take prompt action in case of a disaster.

Backups

It's also recommended that telehealth platforms perform periodic offsite backups. In case of a system failure or cyber attack, the most recent version of data can be restored from the backup

These backups, performed by the software provider, should be stored in separate devices or cloud storage to prevent them from being affected by the same incident as the main system.

For example, if you have scheduled backups, the platform automatically backs up all patient data to a secure, encrypted cloud storage location at regular intervals (e.g., daily, hourly). These backups ensure data recovery in case of a system failure.

Note that in addition to the security measures software platforms take, you’ll need to develop your own security standards, like staff training on cybersecurity best practices.

Communicating privacy and security with patients

Since telehealth platforms involve sensitive patient information, your practice needs to communicate with clients and patients about the privacy and security measures in place. 

It might seem like an awkward extra step, but clear communication can go a long way in building trust and maintaining compliance with HIPAA regulations.

Some examples of what to communicate include:

  • The types of information collected during virtual appointments
  • How this information is stored and secured
  • Any third parties involved in handling sensitive data
  • Steps taken to maintain privacy during virtual appointments (e.g. use of secure video conferencing platforms)
  • How to report any privacy or security concerns
  • Any updates or changes made to your practice's privacy and security policies

Security considerations for specific use cases of telehealth platforms

Your chosen telehealth platform must include secure features that meet the needs of your practice. 

For example, mental health consultations may require telehealth features like in-session chat, backgrounds, and group video capability for couples or group appointments. 

On the other hand, physical therapy sessions may require screen sharing and file sharing to review exercises and treatment plans. 

Understanding security requirements and the features you’ll need will help you select the right HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform and can improve the quality of care.

A few examples include:

Mental health counseling

Mental health consultations involve highly personal and sensitive information. Take additional security measures, like implementing multi-factor authentication, to help ensure your patients’ privacy is never compromised.

Virtual physical therapy sessions

For patients who require physical therapy, virtual appointments allow for more convenience and accessibility.

However, HIPAA-compliant software for physical therapists must include a secure video conferencing feature that protects the privacy of personal health information.

Working with children

Telehealth can be a valuable tool for conducting sessions with younger patients. Features like virtual whiteboards and screen sharing can facilitate engagement during appointments and keep children’s attention focused.

Choose a telehealth platform that securely stores relevant contacts, such as a parent or guardian’s phone number and billing information. 

Remote monitoring for chronic conditions

Telehealth can be especially beneficial for patients with chronic conditions who need regular check-ups and monitoring. However, with this convenience comes the need for strict HIPAA compliance.

Patient data must be transmitted securely and stored in compliant systems to protect patient privacy.

Out-of-state consultations

With telehealth, patients may receive medical care from providers located outside their state.

However, this raises unique challenges for compliance as different states may have different licensing and privacy regulations. It’s important for providers to ensure they’re following the appropriate laws for each patient's location.

Investing in telehealth? Make HIPAA compliance your top priority

Don't let data security concerns hinder your practice's growth. Investing in fully HIPAA-compliant telehealth technology won't just help protect your patients' sensitive data, it will also protect your practice from costly data breaches and non-compliance penalties.

Additionally, telehealth can streamline operations, increase patient access, and ultimately improve overall healthcare outcomes.

This means taking the time to carefully evaluate different HIPAA-compliant scheduling software and telehealth options while also providing proper training to staff. Make HIPAA compliance and data security a top priority today and empower your patients to receive convenient, high-quality care through secure telehealth services. 

AI is transforming healthcare in 2024 from powering healthcare analytics tools and EHR software to helping with drug discovery.

Edited by Shanti S Nair

Medical Practice Management Software Healthcare on-the-go!

Track patient information, plan treatments, and even manage your back office with medical practice management software.

Medical Practice Management Software Healthcare on-the-go!

Track patient information, plan treatments, and even manage your back office with medical practice management software.

Safeguarding Patient Privacy With HIPAA-Compliant Telehealth Platforms Protect client data and learn what to look out for when selecting a telehealth platform for your practice. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/iStock-1435078862.jpg
Paul Adler Paul Adler is Co-Founder and CTO of Power Diary – a health practice management software company with customers in 23+ countries. The practice management platform is ISO-27001 certified and enables secure, seamless business operations with features like telehealth, billing, clinical notes, and more. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Paul%20Adler.png https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-adler-a1862689/

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