Why TLS Encryption Is Pivotal to HIPAA Email Compliance

Assuring HIPAA compliance is a priority for any organization dealing with sensitive healthcare information. HIPAA regulations require organizations in the healthcare sector to implement comprehensive safeguards for securing “protected health information” (PHI).

In the healthcare industry, regulations are complex and strict, and if you’re not adhering to HIPAA standards in everything you do, your organization could risk severe fines, legal repercussions, and reputational damage. According to the HIPAA Journal, non-compliance can cost organizations anywhere between $100 and $50,000 per violation.

hipaa journal
HIPAA Journal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To follow HIPAA guidelines, you need to take numerous steps, and one of the most important is making sure you use the right level of encryption on any email you send with sensitive patient information. Specifically, TLS encryption is arguably the best way to go here.

HIPAA Compliance and Email Communications

HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, establishes a wide range of rules and national standards regulating how organizations protect the medical records and other relevant health information of patients. It has an impact on everything you do when interacting with, sharing, storing, and communicating about personal health data.

Every organization that handles PHI must be HIPAA compliant, without exception. Every email you send to a patient, partner service provider, or insurance carrier that includes PHI, needs to be protected according to HIPAA standards. PHI encompasses medical records, health plan beneficiary numbers, biometric identifiers, and much more.

Ultimately, there are a few factors that make an email HIPAA compliant, such as:

  1. Consent. Patients must give permission for you to contact them via email with PHI data, and must provide consent if you share that information with other entities.
  2. Access controls. Access controls ensure that only approved members of staff in your organization can access and interact with PHI.
  3. BAA. A Business Associate Agreement with your email service provider acts as a contract between a HIPAA-covered entity, and a vendor with access to PHI.

However, perhaps one of the most significant factors in ensuring you’re sending HIPAA compliant emails, is ensuring you implement the right level of encryption.

HIPAA Compliance and TLS Encryption

The primary purpose of HIPAA regulations is to ensure patient data is adequately protected by service providers and medical companies. While achieving full HIPAA compliance requires a multi-faceted strategy, you can’t be compliant if you don’t protect the data that you send to others.

Email may be a quick and easy way to communicate with insurance providers, patients, and other healthcare experts, but it’s not always 100% secure. Encryption is one of the ways you can protect the data shared via email. Essentially, encryption scrambles the content within an email, ensuring it’s unreadable and inaccessible if it’s intercepted by a third party.

However, not all email encryption is alike. Some everyday email service providers only encrypt messages in transit, which means the message is no longer protected when it’s stored, known as “at rest,” on a server. For email to be HIPAA compliant, it needs enterprise-grade encryption, and TLS is the strongest mainstream form of encryption for digital communications.

This cryptographic protocol provides comprehensive security for all data sent between applications on the internet, including email. TLS goes beyond the basic Data Encryption Standard (DES) and protects data at every stage of transit, and at rest, to ensure compliance with HIPAA regulations.

How to Choose a HIPAA Compliant Email Solution

Medical and healthcare professionals using email to share PHI data and interact with patients, service providers, and other entities, can’t rely on a standard email service. Not every email provider adheres to the specific needs of healthcare organizations.

To make sure your emails are HIPAA compliant, you’ll need to look for a solution that:

  1. Includes Automatic TLS Encryption. TLS encryption is the gold standard for ensuring email data is encrypted and therefore unreadable by hackers both at rest, and in transit. An email solution specifically designed for healthcare entities will automatically apply TLS encryption to all emails sent via your account, meaning you don’t run the risk of non-compliance if you forget to click a specific button, or apply a certain setting.
  2. Offers Business Associate Agreements. HIPAA compliance requires a BAA between a service provider, and a vendor with access to PHI. Even if your emails are encrypted and secured, you’ll still need to choose an email service provider that will sign a Business Associate Agreement, so make sure you do your research.
  3. Enables Secure Access Controls and Policies. To further reduce risks, a viable email service provider should allow you to implement comprehensive secure access controls. This might include requiring multi-factor authentication for all employees. Some solution providers will also allow you to set customizable policies for email storage.

Additionally, make sure you provide your employees with holistic training and guidance on how to use your HIPAA compliant email service. Make sure they understand the importance of TLS encryption, storing data correctly, and even documenting additional compliance measures, when required. This should help to minimize your risks.

Keeping Emails HIPAA Compliant with TLS Encryption

HIPAA compliance can be a complex concept for healthcare and medical organizations to navigate. To avoid fines, legal repercussions, and reputation damage, you’ll need a comprehensive strategy to constantly protect Personal Health Information.

If you’re going to be using email to share medical information, patient records, and other sensitive data with patients, insurance, or service providers, make sure you have the right protections in place. Choose a HIPAA compliant email solution that offers TLS encryption automatically, applied to all emails you send, regardless of the data they contain. Prioritizing TLS encryption in your email strategy will help you to adhere to the data protection requirements implemented by the HIPAA statute, so you can protect your brand and your patients.

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