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Do you need patient opt-in for treatment-related emails?

Do you need patient opt-in for treatment-related emails?

Email is a quick and convenient way for healthcare providers to discuss treatments with patients. However, having questions and concerns about the requirements for communicating in this manner is common. Covered entities can include PHI in email for things like treatment, payment, and other healthcare tasks without asking first.


HIPAA requirements for treatment-related emails 

The HIPAA Privacy Rule sets specific requirements and limits for handling protected health information (PHI). Using and disclosing PHI is usually prohibited unless patients’ explicit permission has been obtained, but there are certain exceptions to this rule. Covered entities may use and disclose PHI for “treatment, payment, and other healthcare operation purposes” without prior consent. 

The Privacy Rule further clarifies that treatment-related information can be communicated electronically, including over email, as long as reasonable safeguards are applied. Therefore, patient opt-in is not a requirement to send treatment-related emails. However, covered entities do need to put the proper security measures in place to protect PHI.


Email best practices 

Since standard email is not encrypted, it is considered an “unsecured” method of communication that ultimately leaves patients’ information more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Whenever an unencrypted platform is used to send treatment-related information, patients need to be informed about the potential risks. 

Certain precautions can be taken to prevent unintentional exposures of PHI. One way to do this is by double-checking the email address to verify that it’s going to the correct recipient before sending. Another good approach is sending an initial email to confirm the patient’s email address is accurate. 


The minimum necessary standard

To protect patients’ sensitive information in the event of a data breach, treatment-related emails should follow the Minimum Necessary Standard component of HIPAA. This involves limiting the total amount or type of information disclosed in emails as much as possible. In addition, any transmission of PHI must be compliant with the HIPAA Security Rule. 

Learn moreWhat is the Minimum Necessary Standard?


Provide training

Provide ongoing training for staff on HIPAA compliance and secure email practices. This ensures that employees are fully aware of their responsibilities in managing PHI and reduces the chance of unintentional privacy violations. Make sure to include information on which types of marketing communications do require patients to opt in and how to collect their consent. 


Use secure, HIPAA compliant email

Since human error is still inevitable, covered entities can add an extra layer of security by using a HIPAA compliant email marketing service for every patient communication. The best platforms will encrypt messages at rest and in transit and offer access controls that safeguard data from unauthorized individuals. Signing a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with these third-party service providers ensures the ongoing protection of PHI. 


Treatment-related emails are an exception

Treatment-related emails are considered an exception to the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s opt-in requirements, so patient consent is not required to send them. 

Covered entities should still take steps to safeguard PHI by limiting the amount of sensitive information in emails, thoroughly training employees on best practices, and using a HIPAA compliant platform. 

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