Telemedicine was a growing concept well before the outbreak of COVID-19. But as the virus spreads, practices must kick things into high gear. Many might find that soon it will no longer be practical to see every patient—they must focus on urgent cases that need immediate care. As such, they’re looking for new ways to pre-screen sick patients digitally in order to limit their contact with staff and other patients at their clinics and offices.
This leaves many practices with a few questions: what tools can I begin using right away? What’s easy to use for me and my patients? When it comes to keeping electronic health records (EHR) secure, what is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)? Let’s dive in.
Practices are right to be concerned about HIPAA compliance, but during the current pandemic, temporary changes are easing requirements around telehealth. According to the Health and Human Services website, “The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced on March 17, 2020, that it will waive potential HIPAA penalties for good faith use of telehealth during the nationwide public health emergency due to COVID-19.” However, the guidance offered by the HHS is still to try to find vendors that will enter into a business associate agreement as per HIPAA guidelines.
The options we discuss below are listed on the HHS website as examples of telehealth tools that represent that they provide HIPAA/BAAs in connection with their video communication products. While many of the options below have a free version, those versions typically won’t include a BAA, which means your practice should be cautious about using them, even with more lax rules around HIPAA.
Cisco has long been a front-runner in the networking and business communication realm, and their Webex video platform is one of the top options. Webex makes it easy to create video chats and invite patients to a secure online chat. Patients will not need a Webex login in order to access a meeting. Cisco also offers healthcare-focused resources designed to give providers tools to quickly transition to providing virtual care.
Zoom is becoming a leader in video chat thanks to their simple interface and quality video feeds. It works on Mac, PC, iPhone, and Android. As with Webex, practices can send a link to patients and begin video chatting instantly in their web browser. If patients are using a mobile device, they’ll need the iOS or Android app. Zoom has several paid tiers, but practices should look at the healthcare-specific version.
Microsoft Teams is essentially Microsoft’s professional version of Skype. There’s a desktop app for Mac and PC, as well as a mobile Android and iPhone app. For simple online chats, there’s also browser-based chat option. MS teams/Skype lets you send a link to patients that they can open and use even if they don’t have the app. Teams/Skype also allows you to record calls so you can review them later and share your screen if you need to. For qualifying entities (your practice likely qualifies), Microsoft will enter into a BAA agreement.
The HHS also lists several other video platform vendors that reputedly provide BAAs. These are some alternatives to consider if the above don’t meet your practice’s needs.
There will be time to re-evaluate video options when this health crisis slows, but until then, most practices should either pick a video tool they’re already familiar with or find one that strikes a balance between functionality and ease of use. In general, be sure to use one that’s easy for patients to use, so that their access to care is as frictionless as possible.
Last, practice should remember that pre-screening is an important step that can come before a video visit. In order to pre-screen patients before they spend time with a care provider, it’s wise to use some of the latest chat and messaging tools to make the process easy. Right now, Swell is offering their communications package completely free to practices in need. Check out this page to get started right now.