Am I legally responsible if I receive a patient referral from another dentist and it is sent to me unsecured?

By: Charlie Frayer, JD, MS, HCISPP, CIPP, CIPM

DISCLAIMER: Protected Trust cannot and does not provide legal advice, and the following question(s) and response(s)—like everything else we publish—are not intended as legal advice or opinion. If you need legal assistance, you should contact an attorney licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction.

For the purpose of this answer, we assume that “sent” means “emailed.” Yes, it is possible that you could be responsible if something bad happens to the patient’s electronic protected health information (ePHI) contained in the email referral, but only if it happens after you receive it.

Under HIPAA, a health care provider is called a “covered entity”. The HIPAA Privacy Rule defines “treatment” to include, “…the referral of a patient for health care from one health care provider to another.” The Privacy Rule also states that, “A covered entity is permitted to use or disclose protected health information…[f]or treatment…”. Therefore, under the scenario you describe, neither the referring dentist nor you are violating HIPAA by merely sending (disclosing) or receiving a patient’s ePHI as part of a referral. Given this good news, the core question now becomes, “Does a covered entity violate HIPAA by sending (or receiving) ePHI in an “unsecured” manner?” Again, the answer is mostly good news, but BE VERY CAREFUL AND READ THE REST OF THIS RESPONSE!!!

First, we have to know what makes ePHI “unsecured” vs. “secured”. Then, we need to know whether HIPAA requires ePHI to be secured (seems like a silly question, but you’ll probably be surprised). And, lastly, if HIPAA does not require ePHI to be secured, then what risks do you have if you face by choosing to leave it unsecured?

Unsecured vs. Secured ePHI
The HIPAA Breach Notification Rule states that, “Unsecured protected health information means protected health information that is not rendered unusable, unreadable, or indecipherable to unauthorized persons through the use of a technology or methodology specified by the Secretary [of HHS] in the guidance issued…”. The HHS guidance emphasizes the use of encryption to make ePHI secure. So, technical details aside, the simple answer is that “unsecured” means unencrypted, and “secured” means encrypted.

HIPAA: Encryption Is NOT Required…What?!?
That’s the title of one of our blog posts from Feb.-Mar. 2016—republished by AAO, which we highly recommend that you read immediately (here or here). Although you would be crazy to not use encryption when emailing ePHI—because the risks are enormous, it is true that HIPAA does not literally require encryption (again, read our blog post here or here right now). Rather, what the federal government decided to do was strongly encourage the use of encryption by making it a get-out-of-jail-free card (apologies to Parker Bros.). Under the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule, you must notify certain persons and/or entities whenever you have a breach (e.g., a loss or theft) of unsecured (unencrypted) ePHI. For example, depending on the breach details, HIPAA requires notifying not only the affected patients, but also the federal government (HHS) and prominent members of the media. But—and here’s the GREAT NEWS—if you have a breach of secured (encrypted) ePHI, you do not have to notify anyone. Why? Because the loss or theft of encrypted ePHI—which cannot be read without the key(s)—is not considered a breach at all. So, encryption=no breach=no notifications=no problems for you.

Risks of NOT Encrypting ePHI Emails
If you’ve already read the above-mentioned blog post—and, if you haven’t, stop now and do so immediately (here or here), then you already know the frightening list of risks you face for not using encryption. In summary, in the event of a breach of ePHI:

No Encryption = Notification(s)

Notification(s) = Investigations, Fines, Lawsuits, PR Disaster, and Lost Business

Investigations, Fines, Lawsuits, PR Disaster, and Lost Business = Wasted $,$$$,$$$.

Our Recommendations

  1. Never email ePHI without using Protected Trust Healthcare Email Encryption.
  1. Require all of your fellow covered entities (e.g., health care providers and insurers), other business associates, and patients to use Protected Trust Healthcare Email Encryption.

IMPORTANT REMINDER: As a Protected Trust client, all of these third-party persons and entities can communicate securely with you, free of charge, and forever. No catch!

  1. To comply with HIPAA, make sure everyone in your office has their own Protected Trust Healthcare Email Encryption account (shared accounts are not permitted by HIPAA).

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