The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, more commonly known by its acronym HIPAA, is a federal law that was created with the aim of protecting sensitive medical information and ensuring patient confidentiality, among other things.
This law created privacy standards that all healthcare professionals, insurance companies, and other professionals in the United States must adhere to. Compliance to these confidentiality standards isn’t only required of physicians themselves — everyone in your team needs to know how to handle sensitive patient information to ensure that your practice maintains HIPAA compliance.
This doesn’t apply to on-site staff members only; if you work with a virtual answering service, you will also need to make sure that they maintain the same standards of confidentiality and information protection.
A virtual answering service can be a great tool to guarantee that your practice is able to maintain good communication with your patients. Remote call center operators can work 24/7 and they’re an excellent way to take some work off of your staff’s shoulders to allow them to focus on other tasks.
But just like with any other part of medical attention, you need to ensure that your medical answering service complies with HIPAA. Operators will always follow the guidelines that you dictate — they will provide information according to your instructions, schedule appointments according to your schedule, and transfer emergency calls per your specifications.
Operators are in constant communication with your patients, which is why it’s so important to confirm that you’re using a high quality service that provides sufficient training to each of their agents.
A virtual answering service can also offer additional features, such as automated reminders, delivery of lab results, and logistic arrangements for patients who need them. These services must also comply with HIPAA regulations to ensure that health information is safe during every step of the patient-physician relationship.
What does it mean for a US medical answering service to be HIPAA compliant?
Your practice needs to comply with three different types of HIPAA safeguards: administrative, technical, and physical. If you breach any of these safeguards, the reputation and subsistence of your practice could be in danger.
A high quality virtual answering service will understand the importance of HIPAA compliance, and they will take all the necessary steps to ensure that they fulfill these requirements. Operators working with HIPAA-compliant call centers receive extensive training that guarantees that they understand the protocols that must be followed to maintain patient confidentiality.
There are many other strategies that can be used to ensure HIPAA compliance, such as using high-quality servers to store patients’ information safely, data encryption for sensitive data, and secure messaging practices.
When a patient calls your office and talks to a virtual call center agent, the information they provide will only be shared with your medical practice to ensure that you have received the message. Operators follow your instructions as to what to do with each call — they can provide information directly, triage calls by importance, take a message, offer to call back at a later time, or even transfer emergency calls straight to you. It’s all up to you.
Many virtual answering services also host their own secure web portals that can be accessed by healthcare professionals and patients, thus establishing a safe platform where sensitive medical information can be shared between them. This type of service allows physicians to communicate results, updates, and reports with patients without an in-person appointment — being able to share information securely with your patients through an online platform can help you maintain a more efficient schedule.
Additional benefits of a great medical answering service
In many cases, HIPAA violations aren’t malicious. They are simply the result of mistakes made by overworked staff members who are trying to deal with numerous responsibilities at the same time.
HIPAA regulations are complex, and it’s easy to see how a staff member who already has too much on their plate could make a mistake without realizing it. But even if the intent isn’t malicious and the mistake only happens once, it’s every physician’s duty to protect their patients’ privacy. After all, patients routinely entrust their doctors with very sensitive information.
Hiring a virtual answering service can reduce your on-site staff’s workload, which will allow them to fully concentrate on their everyday tasks. This can reduce the likelihood of careless mistakes that can result in dangerous HIPAA violations, while also making it easier for every member of your team to provide great medical care.