3 Ways Therapists Can Ensure HIPAA-Compliant Patient Communication

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

Mental health facilities are a storehouse of gargantuan volumes of patient data. Earlier, Protected Health Information (PHI) was often verbally received and manually recorded. Today, patients may disclose crucial personal details via text messages, phone calls, emails, and other digital mediums.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 is a Federal law under which all (mental) healthcare facilities must follow certain national standards to protect sensitive patient information. Patient confidentiality is a matter of grave concern as data breaches are on the rise.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR), healthcare data breaches increased by 30.2% as of April 2022. If any mental health provider is guilty of misusing patient information, they can be penalized with thousands of dollars.

Then there’s the fear of losing more money due to lawsuits filed by injured patients. All mental health facilities must maintain strict compliance with HIPAA rules for patient information security and accessibility.

In this article, we will discuss three ways in which mental health institutions can ensure their patient communications are HIPAA-compliant.

Choosing A Secure Patient Portal And EHR Software

When we say PHI, it refers to a patient’s personal and private information. This includes (but is not limited to) the patient’s name, age, social security number, biometric identifiers, geographical info, and more.

Physical files storing such details are relics of a bygone era (or so you may believe). Though other healthcare fields have largely embraced EHR software to store digital patient records, the mental health industry is lagging.

Currently, only 29% of substance abuse rehabs and 6% of behavioral health centers use a robust EHR system. The reason behind the slow adoption is believed to be a lack of Federal incentives.

Only time will tell if Federal stakeholders will introduce relevant incentives for EHR adoption. Even if that does not happen anytime soon, embracing secure mental health EHR software is vital to staying HIPAA-compliant. Just think about it – asking patients to share sensitive info and documents/reports via emails or texts is risky.

A simple email address mistyping can result in dangerous information disclosure. Moreover, the email may land in the spam folder and is largely unencrypted. A fully integrated and secure patient portal will not allow third parties to trespass on confidential information easily.

The mental health provider can control information access to designated individuals (including the patient). Additionally, it’s essential to remember that an EHR system must not be confused with an EMR. Psyquel distinguishes the two based on third-party integrations.

An EHR system offers a more comprehensive view of patient health since it allows secure third-party integrations between different healthcare facilities and providers.

EMR software, on the other hand, is most suitable for a single disease or practice since it does not support information sharing between third parties. Whichever software a mental health facility chooses, the same must manage patient information in compliance with HIPAA standards.

Switching To A Private Connection Or VPN

Therapists should be wary of public Wi-Fi at all costs since these connections are seldom secure. The recommended route is a strong password-protected private wireless connection. This will ensure that client communications over the network are safe and confidential.

The HIPAA Journal published a list of the largest data breaches in 2022, most of them affecting hundreds of thousands of patients. The facilities not only lost millions of dollars in bad business and cleanup but also in regulatory fees and outstanding lawsuits. Most of the breaches were either hacking incidents or ransomware attacks.

Mental health providers can also opt for a reliable Virtual Private Network or VPN for information protection. This will make every network connection as secure as private Wi-Fi. The VPN does this by masking the device’s IP address, making it challenging for hackers to trace it online.

VPNs maintain data security regardless of the user’s location. They also provide access control to selected staff members. The best part is that a VPN will automatically encrypt any information exchanged through messages or emails. This way, patient data is secure even when shared outside the firewall.

The only thing to be careful about is the choice of a VPN provider. The ideal VPN connection would be easy to use with high speed and strong encryption.

Solidifying Telehealth (Online Therapy) Security

The healthcare industry is the most targeted sector when it comes to data breaches. Ever since telehealth services (online therapies) skyrocketed, data violation threats have also risen in proportion. Just as online written communications are at risk of disclosure, so are video conferencing calls.

Many standalone video-conferencing platforms (being non-compliant with HIPAA) must not be used for online therapy. Those like Updox, Google G Suite, and Amazon Chime are not only encrypted but they also prohibit call recording.

Besides using a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing tool for therapy sessions, mental health providers must take the following measures –

  • Their physical location must be isolated and quiet, where no third party can see or hear the conversation. This must be followed even if the patient requests an emergency session.
  • The client must be advised to choose a secure location themselves. The therapist can confirm the client’s location, calling number, and present members in the vicinity before starting the session.
  • Therapists can set up pre-session routines to free up time before the main session takes place. As a part of this routine, the client can be given consent forms to sign and reminders on securing their immediate surroundings.
  • Virtual assistant devices like Siri and Alexa must be turned off as they may pose a threat to privacy.

Parting Thoughts

Even as mental health institutions look for surefire ways to stay HIPAA-compliant, they may face the dilemma of the conduit exception. This exception is made under HIPAA for digital platforms (service providers) that do not act as business associates but as conduits.

For instance – platforms like Skype and FaceTime do not store any information shared on them. They merely transmit data from one point to another. However, it’s important to remember that the conduit exception applies to an extremely limited number of entities.

Choosing platforms that are not exclusively HIPAA-compliant is still a gamble. It’s always best to fare on the safer side. The more serious mental health facilities are about maintaining HIPAA compliance, the more trustworthy they become in their patients’ eyes.

This practice is a win-win for everyone involved. Clients rest assured of data security, therapists are relieved of fears of being penalized, and families can collaborate for enhanced patient treatment.

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