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Can You Use the Internet to Transmit PHI?

  • 30 Jan 2024

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In today's digital age, the internet plays a vital role in communication across various industries, including healthcare. However, when it comes to transmitting sensitive healthcare information, such as Protected Health Information (PHI), the process becomes more complex. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) governs the secure transmission and handling of PHI, and healthcare providers must be well-versed in the rules and regulations surrounding email communication. In this blog post, we will explore the challenges, best practices, and penalties associated with using the internet to transmit PHI while ensuring HIPAA compliance.


What Is HIPAA and Protected Health Information (PHI)?

HIPAA is a set of laws and regulations that aim to protect patients' privacy and the confidentiality of their medical information. Under HIPAA, healthcare providers, known as Covered Entities, and their business partners, known as Business Associates, have a legal responsibility to safeguard PHI related to healthcare services, treatments, and payments. PHI encompasses health-related information, doctor's notes, personally identifiable information (PII), and payment details linked to a patient's care.

Can You Use the Internet to Transmit PHI?

While it is possible to use the internet for PHI transmission, healthcare providers must ensure that the transmission is HIPAA-compliant. HIPAA outlines specific requirements for the secure handling and sharing of PHI to protect patient privacy. Failure to meet these requirements can lead to severe penalties for the healthcare organization or individual involved.

How to Email PHI and Stay HIPAA Compliant:

Email remains a common method of communication, and it can be used to share PHI with proper security measures. However, there are several challenges in maintaining HIPAA compliance while using email for PHI transmission.

How to Keep Emails Secure?

To maintain HIPAA compliance while using email, it is essential to implement strong security measures, such as encryption and access controls. Encryption ensures that PHI remains unreadable to unauthorized parties, reducing the risk of data breaches.

Other Email Considerations:

In addition to encryption, organizations should consider the following when using email for PHI transmission:

  • Email retention policies to manage data storage and deletion.
  • User authentication protocols to ensure only authorized personnel can access PHI.
  • Implementing secure email gateways and monitoring systems to detect and prevent unauthorized access.

What Are the Penalties for Violating HIPAA?

Failure to comply with HIPAA regulations can lead to significant penalties based on the severity of the violation:

  • Tier 1:

    Unintended violations with no knowledge of the issue can result in penalties ranging from $100 to $50,000 per violation.

  • Tier 2:

    Violations due to negligence but with reasonable efforts to comply can lead to penalties of $1,000 to $50,000 per violation.

  • Tier 3:

    Violations due to willful neglect but with remediation attempts can result in penalties of $10,000 to $50,000 per violation.

  • Tier 4:

    Willful violations with no attempts to correct the issue can incur penalties starting from $50,000 per incident..

Securing Different Types of Emails:

While internal emails within a healthcare organization can be managed more securely, external emails to patients and third parties pose challenges. Implementing secure links and patient portals can offer secure alternatives to emailing PHI directly.

Transmission Security:

To maintain the security of PHI during transmission, organizations must ensure that emails are encrypted and adhere to HIPAA's data privacy and security rules.

Understanding the Challenge:

Ensuring HIPAA-compliant email communication requires an in-depth understanding of the regulations, security protocols, and potential risks associated with transmitting PHI.

What about the Email Recipient's Email Client?

HIPAA compliance is not solely dependent on the sender; it also involves the recipient's email client. Organizations must verify that their recipients' email providers meet security requirements.

What Does HHS Say About Sending a HIPAA Compliant Email?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides guidelines and resources for healthcare providers to ensure HIPAA compliance when using email to transmit PHI.

Can I Use Email With a Disclaimer or Waiver?

Emailing PHI, even with a disclaimer or waiver, is still considered non-compliant with HIPAA. PHI should only be transmitted through secure mediums such as HIPAA-compliant messaging apps.

Partner With a HIPAA-Compliant Patient Portal Provider:

Collaborating with a HIPAA-compliant patient portal provider offers a secure and efficient way to communicate PHI with patients and other healthcare providers.

What Should Be Covered in HIPAA Compliance Staff Training?

HIPAA compliance training should include PHI handling, secure communication methods, data storage, incident reporting, and the importance of safeguarding patient information.

What Types of Patient Information Are Covered Under HIPAA?

Any information that can identify a patient and is disclosed during healthcare services or payments falls under PHI and is protected by HIPAA.

Why Email Is Not Considered a HIPAA-Compliant Method of Communication:

Email is not inherently secure, lacks encryption, and presents challenges in controlling data access and distribution, making it non-compliant with HIPAA regulations.

Inadequate Security Features:

HIPAA requires encrypted messages with audit trails and ID authentication, which email often lacks, making it non-compliant for PHI transmission.

Lack of Control Over Patient Email Providers:

Organizations cannot control the security measures of patients' email providers, making email transmission susceptible to interception or hacking.

Not Well-Targeted:

Email communication may lead to sending PHI to the wrong recipients accidentally, posing privacy risks.

Vulnerable to Phishing Attacks:

Phishing attacks targeting email communication can compromise sensitive information, leading to data breaches and violations of HIPAA regulations.

How To Keep Login Information Secure?

Using multi-factor authentication and password managers can enhance email security and protect login credentials.

What If You Stumble Upon PHI That You Shouldn’t Have Access To?

Employees must know the correct procedures for reporting and addressing accidental access to PHI to prevent further breaches.

Where Is PHI Stored?

PHI should be stored on secure devices belonging to the healthcare organization, not on private devices such as personal cell phones.

Have a HIPAA Deadline?

Plan and execute HIPAA compliance measures within the designated deadline to avoid penalties and ensure patient privacy.


HIPAA compliance is not limited to healthcare; various industries handling PHI must also adhere to the regulations to safeguard sensitive information.

Using the internet to transmit PHI requires strict adherence to HIPAA regulations to protect patient privacy and ensure data security. While email remains a common communication method, it presents challenges in maintaining HIPAA compliance. Healthcare providers must adopt secure email solutions, implement encryption, and provide staff training to prevent unauthorized access to PHI. Exploring alternative methods such as patient portals can offer safer options for transmitting sensitive information. By understanding the challenges, best practices, and potential penalties associated with emailing PHI, healthcare organizations can prioritize patient privacy and data protection while leveraging the power of the internet for effective communication.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use regular email to transmit PHI securely?

No, using regular email for transmitting PHI is not considered secure and is not compliant with HIPAA regulations. Regular email lacks the necessary encryption and security features to protect sensitive patient information adequately.

How can I ensure HIPAA compliance when transmitting PHI via email?

To ensure HIPAA compliance when transmitting PHI via email, you should use a secure and HIPAA-compliant messaging platform or patient portal. These solutions offer end-to-end encryption, access controls, and audit trails to safeguard PHI during transmission.

Are there any alternatives to email for transmitting PHI securely?

Yes, there are alternative methods to email for transmitting PHI securely. HIPAA-compliant messaging apps and patient portals provide secure communication channels that protect patient privacy and meet HIPAA requirements.

Can I include a disclaimer in my email to make it HIPAA-compliant?

Including a disclaimer in your email does not make it HIPAA-compliant. HIPAA requires secure methods of transmission, and disclaimers alone do not provide the necessary security features.

What are the potential penalties for HIPAA violations related to emailing PHI?

The penalties for HIPAA violations related to emailing PHI can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation, depending on the severity and intent of the violation. Willful neglect of HIPAA regulations can lead to higher penalties and possible criminal charges.