The Importance of Ensuring Patient Faxes Are HIPPA Compliant

On August 21, 1996, the Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) became law, and by 2005 it had been amended to include critical guidelines regarding the secure handling of patient data. These privacy and security rules still dictate how entities handle Protected Health Information (PHI). HIPPA regulations outline practices for policies and procedures, physical access to data storage, and secure communications.

Faxing is one of the most common ways to communicate patient information, but every organization that uses faxes must have protocols in place to ensure HIPPA compliance. Failure to comply with these security guidelines can result in criminal charges for repeat offenders. With these issues in mind, many businesses have switched to cloud-based fax services designed with HIPPA regulations in mind.

The Three Critical HIPPA Rules

There are dozens of organizations that handle patient information, and each is required to transmit information in a matter that does not violate HIPPA rules. When entities need to provide electronic medical records (EMRS) or electronic health records (EHRS) quickly, they often rely on secure faxes. To ensure they are always sending a HIPAA compliant fax, companies need to comply with the following three critical controls outlined in HIPPA:

  • Everyone having access to PHI must use a unique login that may be audited.
  • All technology that stores PHI has to log out automatically to prevent unauthorized access.
  • PHI has to be encrypted.

HIPPA Fax Policy at a Glance

Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HIPPA’s Privacy Rule permits specific providers to share PHI, but they must use reasonable safeguards when transmitting data. For example:

  • A laboratory may fax a patient’s medical tests to a doctor.
  • A physician can fax PHI to a specialist who will treat the patient.
  • A hospital can fax patient care instructions to a nursing home where the patient will be transferred.

HIPPA requires that senders safeguard faxed information by protecting data from unauthorized disclosure or use. For instance, providers can shield information by ensuring senders confirm fax numbers before transmitting documents to guarantee they reach intended recipients. They could also pre-program often-used numbers to minimize the chance of errors.

Fax Machine vs. Fax Service

It is becoming increasingly common for entities that handle PHI to use cloud-based fax services instead of traditional faxes. Classic fax machines are not as common as they once were, but some offices still use them. According to tech specialists writing for technology publication Wired, “Fax is perceived as a secure method of data transmission. That’s a huge misconception—it’s absolutely not secure.”

Cloud-based fax services automatically encrypt information and leave audit trails. Clients can still use fax machines that connect to cloud service providers via FaxBridge or connector apps. However, a machine is not necessary since all communications are sent and received digitally.

Many companies also opt for cloud fax service to save money on ink and toner, create a more efficient workflow, and simplify sending documents remotely. Clients can use multiple fax numbers and benefit from secure online document storage.

Also see: How to Become HIPAA Compliant?

Choosing a HIPPA Compliant Cloud Fax Provider

While all cloud fax services have benefits, not all offer the same benefits, so it is critical the clients ensure providers will be HIPPA compliant. Fax services should utilize a secure data center and outline all the methods they use to guarantee security. They must be willing to sign a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) and explain their data retention policies.

Clients need to know whether the service confirms that faxes have been sent and received and whether faxes are encrypted during transmission and at rest. Service providers should require user authentication and automatically log users off when jobs are complete. Cloud fax services typically include customizable user roles and permissions for this purpose.

It is also essential that web interfaces and API access are accessible via secure HTTPS connections. The service must provide an audit trail that documents every log-on, logoff, and related IP address.

How Many Fax Lines Are Necessary?

A benefit of cloud faxing is that it allows anyone, anywhere, to access PHI. While this is a tremendous advantage, it also means that unauthorized staff may have easier access to PHI. That is especially likely when organizations use a single line to transmit all types of data.

A simple fix is to have at least one fax line for PHI and one or more for other data. Most cloud fax providers provide extra lines for a reasonable per-month cost. Whatever the charge, it is far less than a fine for a HIPPA violation.

Factors Leading to Non-Compliance

Modern technology has made it faster, safer, and easier to transmit PHI securely. However, there are still plenty of ways to be non-compliant because of security failures and compliance errors. Using a HIPPA-compliant fax service is an important first step, but each organization must also review all communication layers to identify and prevent breaches.

For instance, security issues often occur because employees are not properly trained to use new technology. Also, many workers who manage PHI use personal devices to transmit documents in their professional environments. When they leave their secure workplaces, the data is vulnerable to hacking.

Also see: Revamping Employee Health Management Through Digital Technology

Steps That Help Ensure HIPPA Compliance

HIPPA violations frequently happen because organizations do not recognize technological weaknesses. Unfortunately, simple errors can lead to cascading problems and repeated violations. The answer is to implement a system that offers maximum security and benefits.

Using a HIPPA-compliant fax service is critical, but users also need to transmit documents via secure devices. It is a good idea for healthcare professionals to use facility-owned smartphones on a secure network. Employees can safely use the phones to transmit PHI, unlike personal phones, which may access unsecured networks.

PHI providers must educate stakeholders and workers on the risks and correct use of technology. Organizations also need to evaluate their security systems and implement controls that prevent data leaks.

Advancing technology now makes it possible for various entities to fax sensitive patient health information securely. It is essential that organizations comply with HIPPA regulations when transmitting documents since failure to do so can result in fines or criminal charges. Many companies use HIPPA-compliant cloud-based fax services that provide exceptional protection and efficiency and complement organizational security measures.