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Best Practices for Securing Your Clients’ Privacy While Using Telehealth

Protecting patients privacy

With the pandemic accelerating changes in the way we work and how the world operates, counselors and their clients are experiencing increased threats to data security. In fact, data breaches in the healthcare sector impacted over 48.6 million people in 2022, up from 40 million the year before.

Now that many of us are embracing video calls in our work and social lives, telehealth is an increasingly important medium to connect counselors and therapists with clients. While telehealth is convenient and allows clients to attend appointments without leaving their homes, privacy questions are continually raised.

Let’s look at the best practices for securing the privacy of your clients while using telehealth.

The most common threat to privacy is phishing. Phishing is an attempt to mislead workers at a counseling center, solo practitioners, and their clients into disclosing sensitive information, like credentials, insurance details, or client records.

Telehealth: benefits vs. risks

Telehealth has made it possible for practitioners to connect with clients in new ways, allowing them to continue operating throughout the public health crisis. This has been especially important for clients with comorbidities who are at higher risk for serious COVID-19 infection.

However, it’s essential that practitioners safely gather, transmit, and encode the data. If this isn’t done effectively, potential risks include phishing scams, spyware, ransomware, and computer viruses. If malicious actors are able to get past cybersecurity measures, client data like confidential health information and even billing information including credit card details can be vulnerable.

Encryption, two-factor authentication, and limited access control can help organizations fulfill their responsibility of maintaining client confidentiality.

The most common threat to privacy is phishing. Phishing is an attempt to mislead workers at a counseling center, solo practitioners, and their clients into disclosing sensitive information, like credentials, insurance details, or client records.

Due to the fact that phishing emails frequently seem to be from a reliable source (like accounts payable), they can be challenging to identify. If cybercriminals can trick a target into clicking on a malicious link, they can prevent access to client data and other electronic systems until a ransom is paid.

In healthcare, the costs of restoring systems after a ransomware attack are the second highest of any industry, at an average of $1.85 million per attack. And only 8% of targets are able to recover all data after paying the ransom.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines for protecting client privacy apply to both telehealth and in-person consultations. But in reality, telehealth does not represent a structured, well-documented set of security practices.

HIPAA mandates that these health practices and their affiliations present necessary security structures. Through specialized features like encryption or the use of strong passwords, HIPAA-compliant technology can aid a medical practice in meeting its necessary compliance requirements, including administrative, technical, and financial controls.

In many cases, IT vendors may need to sign a BAA (Business Associate Agreement). Additionally, practices should take into account any state laws that may be relevant, as they could be held responsible for inadequate security measures or illegal access to electronically protected health information (ePHI).

The Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights declared in March 2020 that some enforcement measures during the COVID-19 public health emergency have been relaxed. Popular audio and video communication platforms that are not accessible to the general public may be used in the interim without incurring penalties for HIPAA violations. Instead, use of these platforms is up to the discretion of providers.

How to protect client data

As telehealth visits are evolving into the practical and economical new norm, what can counselors and therapists do to protect their clients' ePHI and solve security issues?

Here are some steps you can take to protect client data:

  1. Audit the telehealth service that you are using with the help of a third-party risk assessment company.

  2. Encrypt information in every step of telehealth counseling. This includes a complete assessment of the process, from encoding to transmission until re-access by either party.

  3. Always review any new software policies or updates. Evaluate them thoroughly before updating the software.

  4. Invest in the best platform for your practice. Choose one that ensures the highest security and privacy for your clients. Where possible, use applications that follow HIPAA compliance. The app should ensure safety from start to end of the consultation and the secure storage of information.

  5. Keep up to date on privacy policies and permissions, and understand what client data the applications or software will be using, and how they’ll use it.

  6. Partner with a third-party cyber security company that will help protect you from cyber attacks. These professionals use specialized tools to find weaknesses in your cybersecurity protocols. Find one that stays up to date on the latest tactics cybercriminals use to steal information or money.

  7. Train all staff on how to identify possible phishing attacks, and instruct them not to click on links or download attachments from suspicious emails. Phishing attacks can also happen through malicious websites or over the phone, so instruct them never to share passwords or client information over the phone, even if the caller seems legitimate.

Prevention is always better than a cure. Clinicians should be educated and informed about privacy and security restrictions. According to a 2022 study by Verizon, 2.9% of phishing emails were opened by the targeted people. While that percentage may seem small, it only takes one successful attempt from a cybercriminal to compromise client data and expose your business to a costly attack.

Technology can help combat cyber threats. For example, requiring two-factor authentication keeps data secure even if a malicious actor is able to access a password. Also, be mindful of the procedures and logistics involved in telehealth scheduling. This will help prevent issues like clients unintentionally accessing the system while a counselor is on a call with another client.

5 best practices for securing client information while using telehealth

Whether you work with an established mental health services provider or are starting a private practice, here are some best practices you can follow to help protect client data.

1. Use a VPN

Virtual private networks (VPNs) offer encryption when you are online. Using a VPN to connect to the internet increases privacy and security, protecting the data that therapists can access. This includes any communication between staff and clients, information about insurance and payment, and any other data.

Installing a VPN gives large mental health organizations as well as private practices an additional degree of security for client information.

2. Require two-factor authentication

Today, it takes more than a password to stop a cybercriminal. However, it is possible to confirm that individuals accessing information are authorized. Requesting that users enter security codes delivered via text to their phone or laptop, or to a second email address, helps ensure that the right person is logging in.

This simple step can greatly lower the possibility of hacker intrusion. According to Microsoft, using two or multiple factors of authentication can protect an account from 99.9% of attacks.

3. Utilize HIPAA-compliant apps

It’s vital to follow HIPAA regulations strictly, even with relaxed rules regarding audio and video communication platforms. Using a HIPAA-compliant email service and audio or video conferencing app helps ensure that a client can communicate with a provider securely.

Some applications automatically enter into an agreement that is both secure for the client and is HIPAA compliant. For audio and video communication, Zoom for Healthcare, VSee, Spruce, GoTo, and Updox are a few HIPAA-compliant options.

4. Follow the zero-trust security model

Everyone in your network may be trustworthy, but if a hacker steals a password and gains access to an account with unrestricted access, they will be able to see any information they want.

The zero-trust security model assumes that anyone attempting to access the system is a threat. Even if they are verified to access restricted data, they can access only the digital resources they need. They can’t just click around and look at everything. Instead of a castle with a moat around it, imagine many secure silos.

5. Educate staff about safety procedures

Teaching employees how to use their accounts safely is one of the most important steps you can take to keep telehealth secure. To protect client data, it's critical that everyone in your organization is able to recognize spam calls, phishing emails, and malicious websites.

Teach them how to set secure passwords. Reusing passwords regularly, or using passwords that are easy to guess like “1234” or “password,” makes users even more vulnerable to hackers. Setting a minimum character length for passwords, and requiring the inclusion of varied capitalization, numbers, and special characters, can make accounts significantly more difficult for cybercriminals to breach.

Additionally, educating clients on security best practices and informing them of possible data breaches can help them remain watchful for attacks.

Final Words

Your organization’s commitment to cybersecurity can affect your reputation among your clients and other industry professionals. A data breach is not only costly monetarily, but it can also irreparably damage a provider’s public image and ruin their brand.

To protect the security of your organization and the privacy of your clients, connect telemedicine services, remote connections, and legacy equipment to a secure exchange network via the cloud. Hybrid cloud fax technology, where your office fax machine transmits using a cloud-based service, can enable the fast transfer of information, encryption, and two-factor authentication.


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