The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed to ensure the security of sensitive patient data. Unfortunately, maintaining HIPAA compliance isn’t always an easy task. Just one mistake can potentially lead to a data breach, compromising patient privacy and causing untold reputational damage.

As technology continues to advance, it only becomes more difficult to maintain compliance. Ignorance is no excuse for compliance violations, though, so it’s essential that all relevant parties take adequate measures to keep up with technological change. In the case of faxing, that means not just understanding the potential benefits and drawbacks of digital faxes but also recognizing when HIPAA-compliant faxing is mandatory.

What Is HIPAA-Compliant Faxing?

HIPAA’s Security Rule requires sensitive patient data to be protected both at rest and in transit. As a result, faxes that are HIPAA compliant offer the best solution to healthcare providers and their business associates. To be HIPAA compliant, electronic faxes must be encrypted, access must be restricted based on unique logins, and the fax service must be able to provide data logs in the event of an audit.

Who Needs HIPAA-Compliant Faxing?

It’s obvious to most people that all healthcare facilities must be HIPAA-compliant, which means their faxes need to be protected, as well. What not everyone realizes is that it’s not just covered entities such as clinics, hospitals, and long-term care facilities that are subject to HIPAA’s Security and Privacy Rules. Their business associates must also guarantee HIPAA compliance.

Business associates can be defined as any third-party organizations that work with healthcare providers and receive access to protected health information (PHI) in the course of their daily operations. When a covered entity engages the help of a third-party organization, it must draft a business associate agreement. This contract states that business associates are responsible for maintaining HIPAA compliance.

Common Examples

Recent industry studies show that almost 90% of healthcare facilities still use faxes to transmit a large majority of their documents. Not all of those documents are being conveyed to other covered entities. In many cases, business associates also send and receive faxes that contain PHI. Common examples of this include:

  • Third-party administrators that help with processing health insurance claims

CPAs who provide accounting services to healthcare providers and need access to PHI

Law offices that provide services to covered entities

Consultants that perform reviews for hospitals or clinics

Independent medical transcriptionists that work for physicians

Pharmacy benefits managers that access pharmacist networks

These are just a few of the most common examples of business associates. The bottom line here is that if any PHI is being transmitted, it must be protected. Like covered entities, business associates must guarantee the security of PHI being transmitted to and from their offices via fax.

Potential Consequences of HIPAA Violations

HIPAA violations don’t just put an organization’s professional image at risk. The accidental or willful violation of HIPAA rules can also lead to hefty fines and even criminal prosecution. It’s never worth risking non-compliance.

An Easy Solution

The easiest solution for organizations that must exercise HIPAA compliance is to work with a digital faxing service that has also signed a business associate agreement. This allows the faxing service to take legal responsibility for the security of the data being transmitted or stored on its servers, removing liability from healthcare providers or other business associates. Just keep in mind that not all online faxing solutions are HIPAA-compliant, so it’s important to check the company’s privacy and security policies.