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Risk Insider: Allan Ridings

Do You Know if Your Electronic Communications are HIPAA Secure?

By: | August 19, 2014 • 2 min read
Allan Ridings is a senior risk management & patient safety specialist at the Cooperative of American Physicians, Inc. He has more than 25 years of experience in risk management and health care operations. He can be reached at [email protected]

As ubiquitous as text messaging is, many wonder why doctors can’t freely text with their patients. But regulators are clear on this. Text messaging is too vulnerable to information theft to be used unguarded in provider-patient communication.

The responsibility to secure medical information is clearly outlined and enforced by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA.

In order to manage the risk of new forms of electronic communication, there are specific rules for health care professionals to follow when using text messaging and email as provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office for Civil Rights (ORC).

Below are best practices regarding electronic messaging of patient information.

What’s the importance of security and encryption in relation to text messaging in health care?

The Joint Commission states that in addition to its violations of HIPAA, unencrypted text messaging provides no way to verify the identity of the person sending the message or to retain the information sent and validate it as part of the medical record.

What is unencrypted text messaging?

Traditional Short Messaging Service (SMS) messaging is transmitted over non-secure and noncompliant networks. The majority of traditional SMS messages are delivered as mobile phone to mobile phone messages; however SMS messages are also delivered via other electronic technologies, which also fall under HIPAA governance:

• Email to mobile phone number

• Mobile number to an email address

• Phone number to alphanumeric pager

• Email to alphanumeric pager

So how do medical professionals text or email information to and from colleagues and patients in a secured encrypted network?

HIPAA requires that a covered entity be in accordance with §164.306 and implement a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt electronic protected health information. (45 CFR § 164.312(a) (2) (iv)). It is also required to implement the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption protocol system with either 128-bit or 256-bit encryption.

Your company or office IT and telecommunications department needs to ensure compliance with the above encryption standards.

What are the benefits of these encrypted / secured services?

Once the physician or medical office has implemented an encrypted mechanism, the sending and receiving of instant information, patient health issues, reports, and referrals as well as communicating with peers, will all be transmitted in secure, protected environments.

Are there any limits when using SMS?

Yes, there is a strict limit of 160 on the number of characters allowed to be sent. Only the first 160 characters will be sent from an email message to a mobile phone and from a mobile phone to an email user. To avoid misunderstandings, it is recommended that caregivers use approved abbreviations when communicating peer-to-peer.

Does your IT department need to make changes to your smart phones or devices?

Yes, your IT team must enable remote access capabilities on your smart phone, so that you can erase (scrub) all the data from it if it is lost or stolen; and you must keep a record of this loss or theft of your smart phone for auditing purposes.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Black Swans

Black Swans: Yes, It Can Happen Here

In this year's Black Swan coverage, we focus on two events: An Atlantic mega-tsunami which would wipe out the East Coast and a killer global pandemic.
By: | July 30, 2018 • 2 min read

One of the most difficult phrases to digest without becoming frustrated or judgmental is the oft-repeated, “I never thought that could happen here.”

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Most painfully, we hear it time and time again in the aftermath of the mass school shootings that terrorize this country. Shocked parents and neighbors, viewing the carnage, voice that they can’t believe this happened in their neighborhood.

Not to be mean, but why couldn’t it happen in your neighborhood?

So it is with Black Swans, a phrase describing unforeseen events, made famous by the former trader and acerbic critic of academia Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

We at Risk & Insurance® define these events in insurance terms by saying that they are highly infrequent, yet could cause massive damages. This year, for our annual Black Swan issue, we present two very different scenarios, both of which would leave mass devastation in their wake.

A Mega-Tsunami Is Coming; Can the East Coast Even Prepare?, written by staff writer Autumn Heisler, profiles an Atlantic mega-tsunami, which would wipe out lives and commerce along the East Coast.

On the topic of whether the volcanic island of La Palma, the most northwestern of the Canary Islands, could erupt, split and trigger an Atlantic mega-tsunami, scientists are divided.

Researchers Steven Ward, a geophysicist at UC Santa Cruz, and Simon Day of University College London, say such a thing could happen. Other scientists say Day and Ward are dead wrong; it’s an impossibility.

One of the counter-arguments is backed up by the statement that there has never been an Atlantic mega-tsunami. It’s never happened before and thus, could never happen here. See exhibit “A” above, re: mass school shootings.

Viral Fear: How a Global Pandemic Kills an Economy, written by associate editor Katie Dwyer, depicts a killer global pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a century.

Tens of millions of people died during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918.

Why it could happen again includes the fact that it’s happened before. The science on influenzas, which are constantly mutating, also supports just how dangerous a threat they pose to millions of people beyond the reach of antibiotics.

Should a mutating avian flu, for example, spread widely, we could see a 10 percent drop in GDP, mostly from non-physical business interruption.

As always here, the purpose is to do exactly what insurance modelers and underwriters do; no matter how massive the event, we create scenarios, quantify possible losses and discuss risk mitigation strategies. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]