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Privacy Perspectives | Why the new HIPAA telehealth announcement is a welcome move Related reading: IAPP offices go virtual: An update

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As more doctors’ offices and care centers try to move non-urgent care patient visits from in-person to online to battle further spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidance that can help. 

The guidance came in the form of a Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications directed at health care providers subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It states the Office for Civil Rights “will exercise its enforcement discretion and will not impose penalties for noncompliance with the regulatory requirements under the HIPAA Rules against covered health care providers in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. This notification is effective immediately.”

The notification states that all covered health care providers who want to use video conferencing to provide telehealth services may use any “non-public facing” communications technology, including “Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype.” 

Importantly, even though HIPAA could, in some circumstances, be interpreted to require business associate agreements between covered health care providers and remote telecommunications services providers, pursuant to the notice, “OCR will not impose penalties” against any health care provider who uses these technologies without a BAA in place. 

Finally, the OCR extends the protection of the notice to telehealth provided “for any reason,” regardless of whether it is related to “the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19.”

This is very welcome protection for health care providers who are moving as quickly as possible, at great personal risk, to identify patients who may need further COVID-19 testing and address patients’ everyday health issues in the midst of the most significant health crisis in our lifetime. 

Permitting them to move screening and other in-patient visits to online video chat is not only a smart move, but it may also be a life-saving one.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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