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Does HIPAA apply to peer specialists?

Does HIPAA apply to peer specialists?

Yes, HIPAA applies to peer specialists if they work for or with healthcare providers or organizations that are covered entities or business associates handling protected health information.


What is a peer specialist?

A peer specialist is a professional in the mental health field who draws upon their own experiences with mental health or substance use recovery to assist others facing similar challenges. These specialists offer a unique form of support that combines empathy with practical advice, helping individuals to navigate their own paths to recovery. The job of a peer specialist is multifaceted: they serve as advocates, mentors, and confidants, often facilitating group sessions or one-on-one meetings to discuss coping strategies, resilience, and personal growth.

A Psychological Services journal article provides, “...peer specialists acknowledge and combat issues of stigma and discrimination (Corrigan & Watson, 2002) which can reduce self-stigmatization and improve quality of life (Corrigan et al., 2010). peer specialists offer empathy and acceptance (Bellamy et al., 2012; Davidson, Bellamy, Guy, & Miller, 2012; Mead & MacNeil, 2006).”

Peer specialists are trained to handle sensitive personal information, adhering strictly to confidentiality principles to protect the privacy of the individuals they support. If they work within healthcare organizations covered by HIPAA, they must also ensure compliance with these regulations, safeguarding patient data from unauthorized access or breaches. This dual focus on emotional support and data security makes peer specialists a bridge between clinical healthcare providers and patients. 


Are they covered entities or business associates?

Whether a peer specialist needs to comply with HIPAA depends on their work context. Covered entities under HIPAA include healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses that handle protected health information (PHI) electronically. If a peer specialist works for one of these types of organizations, they must follow HIPAA rules.

Alternatively, if a peer specialist works for a company that assists a covered entity in handling PHI, like a contractor or consultant, they would be considered a business associate. Business associates must also comply with HIPAA regulations to protect the confidentiality and security of health information.  


How to remain HIPAA compliant

When discussing sensitive information, peer specialists use secure channels like HIPAA compliant email. For face-to-face conversations, they ensure privacy by using private spaces where conversations cannot be overheard.

They practice data minimization by only accessing or requesting the minimum amount of PHI necessary to perform their support role, reducing the risk of unnecessary disclosure.

peer specialists are meticulous in how they document interactions with clients. They ensure that any records created are stored securely, whether in digital form (protected by strong passwords and encryption) or in physical form (kept in locked cabinets or rooms with restricted access).

If working as a contractor or consultant, a peer specialist might develop their own privacy policies and procedures if not provided by the employer. These policies align with HIPAA requirements and detail how they handle, store, and dispose of PHI.

They are trained on how to recognize and respond to data breaches or other security incidents. This includes reporting breaches to their supervisor or the designated privacy officer within the organization as required by HIPAA.

See also: Top 12 HIPAA compliant email services



What is PHI?

Protected health information (PHI) is any information about health status, provision of health care, or payment for health care that can be linked to an individual.


What is the purpose of document trails for HIPAA compliance?

Document trails help ensure HIPAA compliance by providing a detailed record of who accessed PHI and when facilitating audits and detecting unauthorized disclosures or breaches.


What is a data breach?

A data breach is an incident where sensitive, protected, or confidential data has potentially been viewed, stolen, or used by an individual unauthorized to do so.

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