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Medical answering services can be a lifeline for busy healthcare practices. Specialist medical receptionists can improve your practice efficiency by covering out-of-hours calls, managing new patient intake, or reducing hold times. Plus, patient trust strengthens when they know a warm, knowledgeable voice is always waiting to help.

Building patient trust is essential for a thriving healthcare practice — which is why HIPAA violations can be a huge blow. So, if you’re using a medical answering service, don’t miss this crucial step: checking they’re HIPAA compliant.

Let’s explore HIPAA compliance in more depth so you can weigh your choices and make an informed decision. 

We’ll cover: 

  • Why HIPAA compliance matters 
  • How HIPAA violations could affect your practice 
  • The five most common HIPAA breaches 
  • Finding the right HIPAA-compliant answering service 

Why does HIPAA compliance matter? 

You’re likely familiar with HIPAA, but let’s remind ourselves. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a U.S. federal law outlining how healthcare providers must protect sensitive patient health information. HIPAA rules cover privacy and security measures and outline patients’ rights to their medical records. 

Crucially, HIPAA applies to healthcare providers and their business associates. So, anyone who does business with your practice and handles health records must take HIPAA as seriously as you do. If a healthcare practice fails to comply with HIPAA, it can face severe financial penalties, amongst other consequences. 

The five most common HIPAA breaches 

A medical answering service handles your calls so you can focus on what matters most. But a warm, friendly voice is only part of their service. Your answering team should also be aware of these common HIPAA violations and have protocols to avoid them. 

Sending protected health information (PHI) insecurely 

Services should only send patient information over secure, official channels. So what does this mean? It means your receptionist team must send texts and emails via secure systems, and voicemails should never include sensitive patient data.

Reading patient information for non-medical reasons 

Yep, that means looking at the healthcare records of family, friends, neighbors, or even celebrities! Your receptionists should only access individually identifiable health information for one of the reasons listed in the HIPAA rules, which don’t include curiosity.

Overlooking staff training

HIPAA training isn’t a one-off. Staff should regularly refresh and update their compliance knowledge.

Poor record keeping 

Medical answering services should keep patient data for a certain number of years (usually six), plus regularly document staff training and HIPAA protocols.

Inadequate cybersecurity measures 

All medical answering services should have strong, secure IT systems. Otherwise, data breaches or hacking could become an issue.

How could common HIPAA errors affect my practice? 

Let’s dig into those consequences in more detail. Firstly, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can impose fines ranging from $100 to $50,000 per violation. Violations often come in groups, so these fines can quickly add up to staggering numbers. 

Although financial penalties are worrisome for medical practices — particularly those that are family-owned or looking to scale — another consequence is even more concerning. Practices must tell patients when they’ve used their data or disclosed incorrectly. These breach notifications have far-reaching effects on patient relationships.

The good news? It’s easy to check whether your medical answering service is HIPAA-compliant. Let’s talk about what to look out for.

How should I vet my medical answering service? 

Any medical answering service worth its salt should be happy to explain how it protects patient data.

Here are the top five things to ask about.  

  • Digital security. Ask about staff access controls — each member should use a unique ID and password to access patient information. In addition, services should encrypt all stored data and use firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and regular safety audits. 
  • Physical security measures. Check the location of your answering service, and ask about cameras and alarm systems. Staff should use secure entry points with individual access methods, like keycards or biometric scanners. 
  • Employee training. Every staff member must have regular and clearly-documented HIPAA training. Your chosen answering service should be able to share up-to-date training records with you. 
  • Record-keeping. As we’ve seen, record-keeping is a vital part of HIPAA compliance. Your service should be able to describe their record-keeping practices in detail, including employee training, security audits, and breach reports. 

Remember, any suitable medical answering service will gladly field your queries. Their answers should be confident and backed up by evidence, which they should happily share. 

What else to know about medical receptionist services 

A medical answering service offers many benefits beyond HIPAA compliance — this is the bare minimum! Let’s briefly highlight how a receptionist team can help you build patient relationships, save time, and scale efficiently. 

  • Build patient trust. You can switch on medical answering services at busy times or use them to handle weekend, evening, or holiday calls. You and your staff can rest easy knowing your patients will receive a warm, knowledgeable response. 
  • Make the most of every moment. Your answering service can handle crucial but admin-heavy tasks, including new patient intake, scheduling, and appointment reminders. They’ll free up your staff to support patients one-on-one and keep your timetable running smoothly. 
  • Support your staff. Practices with medical answering support tend to have lower turnover and happier staff. Your team gets more time to focus on their work and spend less time being distracted. And that can make a big difference in patients’ lives. 

HIPAA-compliant medical answering services can save you time and money. But ultimately, those savings will be passed to your patients through a trustworthy service, supporting them in their challenging moments. And that’s priceless. 

If you’re looking for a HIPAA-compliant receptionist team, WellReceived could help. Check out our services here or get in touch. We’d love to learn more about your practice.

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Lauryn Davidson

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