Last updated December 31, 2019. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), sets the standard for protecting sensitive patient data. Any organization dealing with protected health information (PHI) must ensure that all the required physical, network, and process security measures are in place and followed. This of course includes HIPAA compliant email.
Organizations include Covered Entities (anyone who provides treatment, payment and operations in healthcare) and Business Associates (anyone with access to patient information and provides support in treatment, payment or operations). This also includes making sure you have HIPAA compliant email baked in when it comes to your email service provider.
Even subcontractors, or business associates of business associates, must also be in compliance.
In this guide we’ll cover:
- What is HIPAA compliant email
- Does HIPAA require email encryption
- The rising costs of HIPAA violations
- How to make your email HIPAA compliant
- Best HIPAA compliant email providers
- The easiest way to send and receive HIPAA compliant email
- How Paubox can help secure your inbox
What is HIPAA compliant email?
The HIPAA Privacy Rule created, for the first time, a set of national standards for the safeguard of certain health information. It allows Covered Entities to disclose PHI to a Business Associate if they receive assurances that the Business Associate will use the information only in the scope of which it was engaged by the Covered Entity.
The HIPAA Security Rule was added to set out what safeguards must be in place to protect electronic PHI (ePHI), which is health information that is held or transferred in electronic form.
In regards to email, this means that covered entities are required to take reasonable steps to protect PHI from their computer and as it’s transmitted electronically, all the way to the recipient’s inbox.
Once the email reaches the recipient, the obligation of the sender ends and it becomes the recipient’s job to secure any PHI they have in their inbox.
If you are using a third party to transmit or host PHI, they are required by law to sign a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with you. The BAA establishes that certain administrative, physical and technical safeguards are in place.
While there’s no certification that makes an email provider achieve HIPAA compliant email status, meeting the requirements set by the HIPAA Privacy & Security Rules is the best place to start, along with strong technical security measures to make sure PHI is protected inbox to inbox.
Does HIPAA require email encryption?
HIPAA encryption requirements are specified by two main terms — “required” and “addressable”.
Those labeled “required” must be put in place or it’s considered a failure to comply with HIPAA. Those that are called “addressable” only have to be implemented after a risk assessment has determined that encryption is needed for managing risks to PHI.
If your organization determines that encryption is not appropriate, then you must document your reasoning behind that decision and implement an equivalent solution to safeguard PHI.
As there’s not an appropriate alternative for protecting PHI other than encryption, it’s effectively required. Not using encryption is risky for your patient’s information and your organization.
HIPAA compliance violations are increasing
Over the past 10 years, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been enforcing violations at an ever increasing pace.
- Hackers are targeting healthcare. The threat of cyberattacks on healthcare has increased significantly due to the high value of PHI on the black market.
- HIPAA violations tripled over 10 years. Confirmed HIPAA violations are skyrocketing. Their growth rate over the past 10 years outpaces almost any trend that comes to mind.
- Stolen laptops continue to result in huge fines. In several instances, a single stolen laptop led to fines in excess of $1,000,000 from HHS.
- A stolen thumb drive averages $925,000 in HIPAA fines. Since 2012, it costs an average of $925,000 in HIPAA fines for a single stolen thumb drive.
- Stolen office computers can be subject to fines too. Even a computer that never leaves your office can still be subject to a costly fine due to a HIPAA Privacy Act violation.
- Unpatched and unsupported software can also lead to fines.
- Accidental and non-malicious internal threats are increasing as well.
How to make email HIPAA Compliant
In order to make sure your organization has HIPAA compliant email, you need to be sure you have processes and workflows in place to insure your staff is properly trained on HIPAA compliance.
But you also need the right technology to be sure those procedures can be made as efficient as possible.
This is especially important to overcome human error, such as forgetting to press a button or type a password to encrypt an email. Human error accounts for the vast majority of email related HIPAA violations.
Popular consumer email providers are NOT compliant:
- Gmail. By far, one of the most popular email providers in the world, Gmail is not HIPAA compliant. But as we went through in a previous post, you can make Gmail HIPAA compliant with a few extra steps.
- Yahoo. Another popular email provider, Yahoo is not compliant.
- GoDaddy. A lot of people use GoDaddy’s hosting service and subsequently use GoDaddy’s Office 365 product, but not all Office 365 email is created equal.
- Host Gator. Another popular web hosting provider that offers email hosting and is not HIPAA compliant.
This is because normal email was created with the priority on delivering messages, not security. Even if your email provider does secure email with TLS encryption, that doesn’t mean your message will be delivered securely.
That’s because if the recipient’s email provider doesn’t support TLS, your message will be downgraded and delivered unencrypted in clear text.
Google’s own data shows that only 87% of email sent with Gmail is delivered encrypted.
For HIPAA, 87% isn’t good enough. Only 100% encryption is acceptable.
For more detail, read more here.
Best HIPAA compliant email providers
Perhaps the most difficult step is next – trying to sort through the noise and pick a HIPAA compliant email provider.
Some factors you want to consider:
- Is the service really HIPAA compliant?
- How easy is it to use?
- Does it integrate with your existing IT setup?
- Does it require new workflows?
- How is customer support?
- Are there hidden costs?
The easiest way to send and receive HIPAA compliant email
Paubox can help you protect your patients’ data while providing it to them in a way that’s easy to access. We are able to do this because we believe in the term ‘seamless encryption.’
Seamless encryption is about providing the expected benefit – HIPAA compliant email – without asking senders or recipients to change behavior.
This greatly reduces the risk of accidentally sending PHI over email. It is a giant burden to have staff make a decision on whether to encrypt an email.
It can be easy to forget to press an encrypt button or type a keyword before sending an email, or simply not realizing there was PHI in an email that was sent.
For recipients, it can be a hassle to have to login to a portal or go through extra steps just to view a message. Especially when trying to view messages on a mobile device.
Paubox’s Encrypted Email allows users to write and send emails as normal from a laptop, desktop and mobile devices. Your recipients will be able to view messages and attachments without needing to enter extra passwords, download an app, or login to a portal.
Even replies are automatically encrypted.
Paubox also integrates with G Suite, Office 365 and other commercial email providers, so you don’t have to change your email address.
Even better, Paubox’s HIPAA compliant email solution gives you the option to add on robust SPAM, virus, ransomware and phishing protection. Phishing scams are still the most common way email gets hacked and continues to lead to HIPAA violations.
HIPAA compliance for Paubox products
Paubox has taken security and compliance to the next level by achieving HITRUST CSF Certification for our products:
HITRUST CSF Certified status demonstrates that our solutions have met key regulatory requirements and industry-defined requirements and is appropriately managing risk.
This achievement places Paubox in an elite group of organizations worldwide that have earned this certification. By including federal and state regulations, standards and frameworks, and incorporating a risk-based approach, the HITRUST CSF helps organizations address these challenges through a comprehensive and flexible framework of prescriptive and scalable security controls.
At this time we believe Paubox to be the only HIPAA compliant email provider to have their solution achieve HITRUST CSF Certified status.
Additional Resource: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Looking for HIPPA Compliant Email?
People often get confused between HIPAA email and HIPPA email. HIPAA is commonly misspelled as HIPPA and it’s easy to mistakenly google for “HIPPA compliant email” or “HIPPA email.” Google however, is smart enough to know the correct spelling and will point you to the right pages by default. In a nutshell, “HIPPA compliant email” or “HIPPA email” are not correct. “HIPAA compliant email” or “HIPAA email” are the correct search terms.