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HIPAA requirements are loosened to expand telemedicine options during coronavirus outbreak

Doctors are allowed to use non HIPAA-compliant video chat platforms to treat and diagnose patients during the coronavirus outbreak.

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. — More patients will have access to telemedicine as health officials work to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS has loosened HIPAA privacy restrictions to allow doctors to use more video chat platforms to connect with patients.

The move allows providers to use video chat platforms like Apple's FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts video or Skype without being penalized by the HHS Office for Civil Rights "for not using HIPAA-compliant technology during the national public health emergency."

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Privacy remains a paramount concern.

“It really exposes the cyber criminals to a new vector, if you will," explained Terrill Frantz, a cybersecurity professor at Harrisburg University. "The most important thing is make sure you know who you are talking to on the other side.”

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Frantz said there is always a risk of hackers potentially accessing sensitive information. However, even non HIPAA-compliant technology has extensive safeguards in place. 

"These communication tools, like Skype and FaceTime, they are all encrypted pretty well and I think you could be pretty comfortable with that," Frantz said.

Frantz said this might be the silver-lining. By expanding the use of telemedicine to reach more patients, we may also bring back the old-fashioned house call. 

“For a whole generation, we haven’t had that notion. So that could be our big win from this crisis we're in right now," explained Frantz.

Some healthcare systems, like Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and Penn State Health, already use telemedicine through their online portals.