Just as the September 23 enforcement deadline of the new HIPAA rules arrives, The Oklahoman reports a case of a doctor who did not take heed of state health regulations for practicing telemedicine. Dr. Thomas Trow is being disciplined for prescribing powerful meds to mental health patients over Skype video chat without ever having seen them in person. With few exceptions, most state health laws require an initial in-person visit to establish a patient-physician relationship before before a doctor can treat a patient over video conference. This includes prescribing drugs, rendering diagnoses, and performing other medical services during a virtual visit. In addition, medical board documents also show that Skype video chat, which Dr. Trow was using, is not an approved telemedicine communication system.
Skype for Telehealth – Is it that bad?
Since the announcement of the new HIPAA rules early in February , the debate about the appropriateness and security of using consumer video chat systems such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime for telehealth has been raging in the health community. While Skype is simple and popular, it’s lack of privacy features for the medical work flow is a concern to many telehealth practitioners.
Recently, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the enforcement agency for the HIPAA omnibus, emphasized that a company that transfers health data such that it is either unencrypted or accessible to the company (even temporarily) is liable under HIPAA as a Business Associate. However, this doesn’t mean Skype is a legally acceptable telehealth tool. Telehealth practitioners still need to beware of state legislation regulating the use of video chat systems — especially since state rules are often more stringent federal regulations and take precedence over looser federal laws, as Dr. Trow found out the hard way.
In any case, with new HIPAA rules going into effect now, make sure you have a HIPAA-compliant practice, including your video conference system. You can check out some Skype alternatives for telemedicine or check out these simple tips on meeting HIPAA compliance.