Written by: John Lynn
This guest post was provided by Ed Fisher on behalf of GFI Software Ltd. GFI is a leading software developer that provides a single source for network administrators to address their network security, content security and messaging needs. More information: email archiving software.
In today’s business environment, where litigation is an increasingly common way for disputes to be settled, compliance is included in every business plan, and regulations are reaching into business processes everywhere. Email admins must concern themselves with far more than just whether or not email is flowing. They must ensure that messaging meets the various regulations under which their business falls. They may also have to deal with legal holds, compliance reviews, discovery motions, and internal policy enforcement.
An email archiving solution can assist with all of these tasks, and nowhere is this more important than in the Healthcare industry. Email is becoming the preferred method to communicate, and since there are so many ways in which the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) of 1996 can come into play with data sharing between providers and communications with patients, email archiving can be a very important, and potentially far reaching, service you can add to your email system.
PHI data in email communications
HIPAA requirements are unique to the healthcare industry, but the scope of these requirements can extend well beyond the boundaries of the doctor’s office or hospital. Both the burden and the potential penalties for non-compliance have been increased by HITECH. Enterprises that deal with healthcare providers, including professional services companies like accountants, law firms and IT consulting practices, will find themselves subject to provisions of HIPAA and HITECH as soon as they take on a healthcare provider as a client.
One of the trickier aspects for messaging is that HIPAA specifically addresses the need to encrypt Personal Health Information (PHI) in email communications. It is very rare for healthcare providers to send PHI by email as most of them use specialized messaging systems to do this. However, this doesn’t mean healthcare providers are not sending or receiving email that, indirectly, affects the relationship between healthcare provider and the patient or that between the staff and their patients.
There are other items that could be relevant for an investigation. For example, appointment reminders/confirmations (thus validating that the patient was notified); internal email discussions among doctors/nurses (not directly referencing a patient, but talking about treatments or scheduling); and even general HR emails that a doctor was absent due to illness (if the doctor was away when a claim is made that a patient was misdiagnosed, then they would be cleared of wrongdoing) and so on.
Many organizations, not only in healthcare, underestimate the importance of email in terms of content and intellectual property and being able to refer to emails sent six months earlier or last year can be of great benefit. Email archiving is not specifically called for within the text of HIPAA, but by maintaining a copy of every internal email message or any that was sent to or received from partners, vendors, and clients, you can prove conclusively that messages sent contained no PHI, and that any messages that did contain PHI were sent through the proper and encrypted channels.
Some people argue that email archiving is a double-edged sword – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is a rather naïve way of looking at email archiving. If you do archive your email, you have assurance that you comply with any regulations in place and if you are subject to legal requests for information that may be traced through an email, you have the ability to find it.
Now the counter argument would be, ‘well, if I don’t have an email archived, I can’t be condemned because the evidence is not there’. Wrong. If you don’t have the email, someone else certainly does and suddenly you’ve found yourself in a worse situation once the evidence is presented.
Proving that you made the effort at attaining compliance is preferable to doing nothing at all.
With email archiving, you can also meet the document retention requirements specified within HIPAA. There is a six year retention period for information related to PHI which is mandated by HIPAA. That can be six years from the creation of a message, or the last date on which the message can be considered relevant. As more communications move from in-person, telephone, and facsimile, to email, patient requests and Healthcare professionals’ responses will follow suit. An email archiving solution makes it easy to retain these communications for the six year timeframe, as well as to automatically purge out those communications which are older than six years or tagged as no longer relevant.
Search and discovery
An email archiving solution is also an excellent way to access the repository of information contained within the combined emails of a company. Consider how much of your own email is saved because it contains data or instructions that simply don’t exist anywhere else. An email archiving solution can empower a user to search their own archived messages for all content related to a search string, such as a patient’s name; it can also enable an authorized user to search across all users’ email for information related to a patient, a condition, a particular medicine, or any other topic. There may well come a day when you must do this in response to a legal order, but there will also be plenty of times when you need to find a key piece of information, or simply want to spot check to ensure that all users are following the policies in place to protect patients’ PHI.
With an email archiving solution in place, healthcare providers not only position themselves to show compliance, review users’ actions, and meet current document retention requirements, they are able to build up a historical repository to meet future needs. The health care provider is also able to take advantage of the many benefits of an email archiving solution that are common across all enterprises, including storage, search, and business continuity.
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Full Disclosure: GFI Software Ltd. is an advertiser on EMR and HIPAA.