HIPAA Compliant Chat: Benefits and Best Practices

6 min read Michael Carroll on Apr 13, 2022

Chat apps have grown significantly in popularity, and the field of medicine is no exception. With telemedicine, patients can receive remote consultations and prescriptions, doctors can share images of X-rays with colleagues on the other side of the world in a matter of seconds, and services like mental health treatment become more easily accessible and widely available. However, to ensure that patient data is always protected, healthcare organizations must use HIPAA compliant chat apps.

Many popular chat apps are not appropriate for healthcare professionals. They’re often woefully inadequate when it comes to implementing the HIPAA pillars of data security and patient privacy. For example, while these apps may encrypt messages, they often hold a copy of the key that they use to analyze message data. This is a major red flag for HIPAA guidelines and can lead to a violation due to noncompliance.

What Is HIPAA Compliant Chat?

HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, an act passed in 1996 to protect patients’ sensitive information. HIPAA compliant chat refers to secure digital platforms for sending and receiving text-based messages. Often, these solutions come in the form of industry-specific messaging apps with encrypted communications. Other times, healthcare organizations use a professionally designed platform that offers protected chat, video conferencing, document storage, and database services.

HIPAA compliant chat solutions let healthcare organizations and medical professionals communicate efficiently and accurately. It safeguards electronic protected health information (or PHI) while taking advantage of the flexibility and speed of modern communication technology. Doctors can use HIPAA compliant chat to share test results with a colleague or a patient. Many hospitals and clinics use HIPAA compliant chat platforms so patients can have 24/7 access to care.

Whenever PHI is included in text messages, the application must satisfy HIPAA guidelines found in the Privacy Rule and the Security Rule. PHI can consist of many things, including a patient’s name, test results, prescriptions, and past treatments. If any of the 18 identifiers appear in a text-based message, that message contains PHI. HIPAA compliant chat prevents unauthorized individuals from accessing this private information.

Benefits of HIPAA Compliant Chat

The primary reason why healthcare organizations need to implement HIPAA compliant chat is to ensure proper data protection. Any security breaches or HIPAA violations can lead to significant fines and penalties, possible charges, and lawsuits. In addition to these legal requirements, however, following HIPAA guidelines in all communications is the gold standard for medical care. Doing so unlocks the benefits of modern messaging technology:

  • Remote Care Options: As pandemics gain increased visibility on the world stage, providing preliminary diagnoses via telemedicine helps unburden healthcare personnel and facilities. Additionally, patients don’t need to visit a hospital waiting room. Real-time HIPAA compliant chat allows patients to share details with their doctor via voice, text, and video, and receive immediate recommendations for care.

  • Streamlined Diagnosis and Treatment: The adage that two heads are better than one applies well to a patient’s medical care team. Improved coordination between physicians and specialists puts everyone on the same page. This helps doctors reach the correct diagnosis more quickly.

  • Improved Efficiency: Less time spent on non-essential tasks, such as walking from one place to another, means more people can be treated. Making optimal use of medical staff is good for patients, and it’s good for administration efficiency. It enables cost savings without cutting the quality of care.

  • Reduced Response Times: Sometimes, a patient’s life hangs in the balance. When this is the case, every second is vital. HIPAA compliant live chat apps can shave significant time off of lab testing. Instead of having to wait for tests to be delivered physically or via cumbersome platforms, medical professionals can receive everything instantly via chat.

  • Secure PHI storage: By following HIPAA guidelines for communication on a smartphone or tablet, medical professionals can keep past communications stored safely. This can provide a secure record of past conversations, improving diagnosis, and treatment. A glance at messages can let physicians know of any new symptoms or complaints. If you store PHI in the cloud, your organization must ensure that it's protected by using HIPAA compliant cloud storage.

  • Lifesaving EMT communications: HIPAA compliant chat can save lives by communicating with EMTs. Instead of waiting for critical patients to arrive at the hospital before beginning treatment, EMTs can consult with emergency room personnel en route. Doctors can prepare ahead of time for incoming patients and guide EMTs regarding preliminary measures.

  • Reduced Treatment Errors: One of the most common mistakes in patient care is mixed-up communications regarding medications. Messaging apps can help solve this problem by allowing medical personnel to coordinate freely. E-prescribing via specialized apps can also reduce the need for paperwork.

  • Friendly Reminders: HIPAA compliant live chat enables excellent follow-up care. Doctors can use messages to ensure that patients are following the prescribed treatments. This can also create a warmer relationship between medical professionals and their patients. You can also easily send patients updated documents and notices, such as a Notice of Privacy Practices.

In-app chat ensures the best patient care possible by expanding access to doctors, test results, and facilities. Likewise, they benefit hospitals, clinics, HMOs, and health insurance providers by offering increased efficiency and lower costs of care. Improved efficiency and accuracy is good for everyone involved.

Best Practices for HIPAA Compliant Patient Communication

Achieving HIPAA compliance involves both technology and people. First, in-app chat itself needs to meet HIPAA criteria, from the way messages are sent to the security checks in place to prevent tampering. Here are five essentials for HIPAA compliant chat:

  • Encryption: Messages in transit need to be encrypted to protect patient data. That way, unauthorized third parties can’t view or use intercepted data. End-to-end encryption is one of the best ways to ensure privacy since it only allows the sender and the recipient to read decrypted messages. Secure chat apps created specifically for individual healthcare businesses can streamline communications while protecting PHI.

  • Secure and Accurate Transmissions: When choosing a chat app, security is central, but so is accuracy. It’s vital to ensure that unauthorized third parties are unable to alter messages in any way. This also includes other staff members within the organization itself.

  • Access Controls: Any HIPAA compliant messaging solution must have access controls and secure logins. Password-protected logins for users are one way to implement this requirement. Some organizations add an extra layer of security with dual-authentication measures.

  • Timed Sign-Out Features: In a high-speed working environment, medical professionals may set tablets or smartphones down for a minute. This can expose PHI to HIPAA violations if someone else uses the unlocked phone to send messages or review past chats. Timed sign-out features prevent this problem.

  • Audit Controls: Another HIPAA technical safeguard, and one that disqualifies many “free” chat apps, is being able to audit communications. Administrators must have the ability to check user access and activity. An app with automatic reporting features can assist in this.

Of course, technology is only as secure as the people using it. To truly follow HIPAA guidelines, healthcare organizations must train their personnel on the proper way to send, store, and share PHI. Employees need to understand the importance of following the correct sign-in protocol. And, administrators must select a communication option with built-in security settings, ones that can’t be changed by individual users.

How to Ensure Live Chat is HIPAA Compliant

Chat apps, APIs, and SDKs are powerful tools with countless benefits—when used correctly. To avoid HIPAA violations, companies must choose the right solution from day one. This means carefully considering the security and privacy features offered. HIPAA compliance isn’t an area where organizations can afford to make mistakes. 

PubNub has extensive expertise in HIPAA. With a combination of turnkey messaging options, reliable chat infrastructure, and flexible APIs, PubNub offers customized solutions for companies of any size to incorporate HIPAA compliant messaging and real-time chat into their technology stack.

All of PubNub’s APIs are fully HIPAA compliant. This way, SaaS developers can build everything from mobile chat apps to secure data platforms specifically for the medical sector. Learn more about PubNub’s digital healthcare options or talk to an expert for more information.