Healthcare organizations are increasingly deploying cloud-based communications solutions — from voicemail to chat to SMS — to help them communicate more efficiently and improve patient care. And because these organizations handle patient data while streamlining communications through the cloud, it's critical that they use HIPAA compliant cloud technology.
The key to HIPAA compliance and the cloud begins with your communications provider, also known as a business associate. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the HIPAA Privacy Rule requires all covered entities to have Business Associate Agreements (BAAs) with third-party vendors to regulate how electronic protected health information (PHI) is created, received, maintained, or transmitted. Many cloud communications providers and business associates, however, operate without HIPAA compliant technology or BAAs — putting their associated organizations at risk of violation penalties.
Here's a closer look at why having HIPAA compliant cloud providers is crucial for any healthcare organization.
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Why HIPAA Compliance Matters
Vetting your cloud communications provider for HIPAA compliance is a critical part of maintaining a responsible practice. A report in the HIPAA Journal noted that in 2017, nearly one-fifth of all data breaches — an increase from 2016 — involved business associates either directly or through their involvement with a covered entity.
It's not just large organizations that are under attack, either. The HIPAA Journal's 2018 Q1 report demonstrates the vulnerability of healthcare organizations of all sizes, from single-office practices to large operations, including both health providers and health plans. Thus, no matter the size or type of your healthcare organization, it's important to assess whether you're taking on HIPAA compliant cloud technology when using a third-party cloud provider to deliver your communications solutions. Otherwise, the risk of a data breach — and the potential of an audit from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) — can increase significantly.
How HIPAA and the Cloud Improve Communication
Cloud solutions can improve communication in the medical field, though, and concerns about HIPAA shouldn't deter healthcare organizations from using them. It's important to understand, however, which cloud technologies require HIPAA compliance and to vet providers accordingly.
For example, many cloud communication systems offer more flexibility and accessibility for providers and patients. Cloud communication systems make it easy to route calls through a virtual receptionist to quickly connect patients to the right medical department, prioritize incoming calls according to their level of urgency, and route calls to any device at any location so medical professionals can provide excellent patient care even when they are in transit. These capabilities improve the patient experience and free up staff time, and because a cloud communication system receives and transmits patient data, the system must be HIPAA compliant.
Other cloud-based communications, such as chat and SMS, also facilitate real-time communication between patients and providers, which is especially important when patients are unable to visit an office or hospital in person. Call recording and even visual fax also help healthcare providers record and track patient data. Here again, though, the cloud service provider hosting these technologies should have invested in a high level of data security to protect patient health data as it is being transmitted, received, or maintained.
Cloud communications solutions offer a number of benefits to both patients and healthcare organizations — from cost savings to better patient communications — and medical offices shouldn't shy away from using these communication tools because of HIPAA concerns.
What to Look for in a Provider
It can be challenging to determine whether your cloud provider is taking data security, privacy, and HIPAA compliance concerns seriously. To ensure that your cloud provider is HIPAA compliant, start by establishing a BAA. As part of the agreement, ask the provider to demonstrate that it has implemented the required safeguards, which it can do by investing in certification from a third-party organization like the Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST). This type of certification is the industry standard in the United States for verifying HIPAA compliance.
Additionally, ask the cloud communications provider if it has suffered any recent data breaches. If so, ask how it has improved its data security and privacy to support HIPAA, and check to see that it currently uses a platform with multiple levels of data encryption and security for extra protection. Verifying that your provider takes compliance seriously and has invested the resources and expertise necessary to meet HIPAA compliance standards is absolutely necessary when forming a BAA with a cloud provider.
Cloud communications solutions offer a number of benefits to both patients and healthcare organizations — from cost savings to better patient communications — and medical offices shouldn't shy away from using these communication tools because of HIPAA concerns. But they should do their homework, making sure to select a cloud service provider who has invested heavily in data security and privacy, as well as third-party certification to verify that their technologies are HIPAA-compliant.