Healthcare Marketing Emails: HIPAA-Compliant Marketing vs. Transactional Emails

There are two main types of high volume, large scale email that healthcare organizations send to their patients. The first are marketing messages, which are emails sent solely for marketing purposes. These can include offers and discounts, information about new services, and other messages that attempt to gain more business from the patient.

Marketing emails may or may not need to be HIPAA compliant, depending on the context and content.

Transactional emails involve messages that help customers or give them information that they need or have requested. Transactional emails are generally unique to the recipient and generated on demand by some “transaction” request or process. This differs from typical marketing messages that are often very similar messages sent en mass to a collection of addresses.

Again, not all transactional emails may need to be HIPAA-compliant, however they are more likely to contain private health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII) than plain-old marketing emails. If the emails do contain these details, then they will need to be sent in a HIPAA-compliant manner.

The line between the two types of messages gets blurry because savvy marketers see transactional emails as a key opportunity to squeeze in some additional marketing. These emails are an effective way for companies to advertise to engaged customers because people are far more likely to open and read the marketing message attached to a transactional email than they are for pure marketing emails.

Types of Transactional Email

Transactional emails have a purpose other than just straight marketing. They generally give the customer information that they need, or help them with a certain activity. Some of the most common types of transactional emails include:

  • Welcome emails
  • Notifications or social media updates
  • Payment receipts
  • Auto-responders
  • Password reset emails

In the medical context, transactional messages can also be used for:

  • Test results
  • Appointment reminders
  • Medication reminders

How Can Marketing Emails Violate HIPAA?

While most marketing emails are unlikely to violate HIPAA, there are ways that companies can accidentally trap themselves. Let’s use an example:

A new study comes out citing more effective treatment options for people with depression. A medical practice picks up on it, and decides that not only would the findings be helpful for their patients who suffer from depression, but they may also be able to drum up some extra visits.

The practice goes through its files, finds everyone who suffers from depression, then sends all of them an email with the details of the new study, asking them to visit their doctor if they have any further questions.

It seems fine, right? The medical practice is just sending out an email to the patients who may be able to benefit from it most. Unfortunately, such targeting may fall foul of HIPAA. Why? Because The messages will contain personally identifiable information – the email addresses of patients at a minimum – as well as information about their health condition or treatment.

When a message contains information that could be used to identify an individual’s medical condition, such as in the above example, it needs to be sent in a HIPAA-compliant manner. This is because anyone who intercepts or accesses the above message could figure out the patient’s health problems, violating their privacy.

However, if the very same message was sent to every one of the practice’s patients, regardless of their medical condition, the exact same text would be unlikely to violate HIPAA. This is because if everyone gets it, no one is singled out, which means that the email can’t betray any private information about an individual’s medical condition. However, even here we have a gray area as this list now identifies the people as patients of this office and that could be considered PHI in an of itself in many contexts.

There are other ways that marketing email falls under the umbrella of HIPAA. This has to do with advertising specific things to patients. This often requires opt-in permission from the patient as well as normal email security protections.

How Can Transactional Emails Violate HIPAA?

Transactional emails can violate HIPAA in much more blatant ways. It’s easy to imagine an incompetent organization sending out appointment reminders along the lines of “Dear Mr Jones, you have a 10 o’clock appointment to discuss your cancer with the oncologist.”

It’s also not too hard to picture a caring pharmacist slipping up with a “This is just a friendly reminder that you need to refill your Prozac prescription” message. In both of these cases, the patient’s privacy would have been compromised in a way that violates HIPAA.

What if Mr Jones hadn’t yet told his partner about his cancer diagnosis, and he accidentally opened the message while they were sitting right beside him? Likewise, someone may have intercepted the other email and inferred that the patient suffers from depression.

HIPAA-Compliant Bulk Email for Transactional or Marketing Purposes

Such simple mistakes show just how easy it is for organizations to slip up and accidentally violate HIPAA regulations. Given that mistakes are a part of life, and that these particular mistakes can be incredibly costly and difficult to fix, healthcare organizations should send all marketing and transactional emails in a HIPAA-compliant manner.

In our experience, the larger the organization, the more they err on the side of security and seek to encrypt all of their marketing and transactional email so that they are covered from a risk standpoint. They understand how easy it can be to make a mistake in classification of email messages or security.

Even if the vast majority of your company’s emails don’t test the boundaries of HIPAA, using a HIPAA-compliant sending process is a straightforward way to protect your organization in the few cases that do.

LuxSci’s High VolumeTM secure email offers a simple solution. It’s HIPAA-compliant and security-focused, while also having all of the features that organizations need to send bulk emails. Our High VolumeTM email service makes it easy to send the transactional and marketing emails that your company needs, while also keeping it safe at the same time.

This is a guest post written on behalf of LuxSci.