US waives potential health-privacy penalties during coronavirus crisis


US doctors are now able to tap FaceTime as a way to see patients during the coronavirus outbreak. Previously, privacy protections restricted them from using the app. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

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The coronavirus crisis is pushing the US government to loosen one of its only laws on data privacy. The Department of Health & Human Services said Tuesday that it’ll waive penalties for potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. 

HIPAA protects patients from having their medical data shared by health care providers, preventing the data from being used for advertising and marketing, for example. Those privacy protections limit what technology health care providers can use, but the coronavirus pandemic is changing that. 

“During the COVID-19 national emergency, which also constitutes a nationwide public health emergency, covered health care providers subject to the HIPAA Rules may seek to communicate with patients, and provide telehealth services, through remote communications technologies,” the HHS said in a statement on Tuesday

Not every video communications service is HIPAA compliant, as specialized services like Zoom for Healthcare and Skype for Business are. But with COVID-19’s ability to spread at an exponential rate, and governments urging people to stay indoors to contain the outbreak, the HHS has decided to open up more common video chatting services for doctors to use. 

That includes popular apps like FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts and Skype. The HHS’s Office of Civil Rights said that it would not be imposing penalties on healthcare providers using those non-compliant video chatting services. 

This change is not just for diagnoses related to the coronavirus, the agency said, and can include a sprained ankle, psychological evaluations or a dental consultation. 

“For example, a covered health care provider in the exercise of their professional judgement may request to examine a patient exhibiting COVID- 19 symptoms, using a video chat application connecting the provider’s or patient’s phone or desktop computer in order to assess a greater number of patients while limiting the risk of infection of other persons who would be exposed from an in-person consultation,” the agency said. 

The HIPPA waiver is effective immediately, the agency said. The HHS is still encouraging medical professionals to tell patients that these third-party apps can introduce privacy risks, and health providers should enable all encryption and privacy modes when using it. 

It also clearly stated that public-facing platforms, like Facebook Live, Twitch and TikTok should not be used for teleconferencing. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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