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Answering Service Messages

This is a question that is often asked. To encrypt or not to encrypt what am I required to do?

Q: If a physician uses an answering service and receives unencrypted messages from an answering service, is it a violation of the HIPAA Security Rule?

A: If a physician uses his or her Smartphone to contact an answering service, it is not a violation of the HIPAA Security Rule. It may represent a risk, but generally, phone transmissions (mobile and landlines) do not need to be encrypted unless the answering service is an automated service where messages are stored on a server that is open to the Internet (such as cloud-based answering services).

Even then, encryption is not required, but it is strongly recommended. Conduct a risk analysis, identify risks such as those related to unencrypted PHI, and then determine whether those risks are acceptable risks. A covered entity or business associate can elect to prohibit physicians and other workforce members from using a Smartphone to access messages from an answering service. That, though, is a decision that is made at the entity level and is not a HIPAA mandate.