Is Google Hangouts HIPAA compliant? Google Hangouts as a telemedicine solution

Posted by Michael Hsu on 5/14/20 12:00 AM
Michael Hsu

Google Hangouts is Google’s communication platform that allows for video and voice calling and instant messaging. If you want to start a call, you need to have a Google account, but you can join a call without it. Up to 25 people can join the call using this free app.

Is Google Hangouts HIPAA compliant, and can you use it for telemedicine and telehealth purposes?

Is Google Hangouts HIPAA compliant?

If you want to get your medical practice online using Hangouts, you need to enter into a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with Google. This agreement exists to ensure the privacy and security of protected health information (PHI) that will be transferred using the platform.

Google will enter into a BAA, but only with G Suite users. When you sign the BAA, Google makes sure that the majority of the Suite apps can be configured so as to be HIPAA compliant. Hangouts is on the list of these apps, but only its chat messaging feature can be made compliant. Hangouts video and voice calling are not included and should be avoided.

Regarding the free, consumer version of Hangouts, Google doesn’t guarantee its compliance. Even if it fulfills all the requirements, it can’t be considered HIPAA compliant unless you sign an agreement with the provider. Google won’t enter into a BAA with a consumer app user, which makes the free version non-compliant by default.

The truth is that the classic version of Hangouts will eventually disappear from G Suite altogether. That’s because Google has introduced two new apps:

  1. Google Meet, which replaces the video chat option in Hangouts
  2. Google Chat, which takes the place of Hangouts’ chat messaging option

A replacement for Hangouts’ voice calling feature already exists in the form of Google Voice.

All three of these replacement apps can adhere to HIPAA rules, but bear in mind that none of Google’s apps are compliant by default. You are responsible for making them compliant, and Google offers a complete guide on how to do that.

Curogram is fully HIPAA compliant by default

Curogram is a telemedicine, two-way messaging solution that is completely HIPAA compliant in and of itself. It has all the required safeguards in place—access and audit controls, encryption, breach notification protocols, ect.—and you won’t have to worry about configuring anything yourself. You can focus on transitioning your practice to a virtual environment without worrying about the security of PHI and legal requirements. 

We designed Curogram with healthcare professionals in mind, so unlike Hangouts, it offers a variety of features specific to healthcare needs. Hangouts may be familiar, but our platform is infinitely more efficient and practical for telemedicine and telehealth purposes.

OCR allows healthcare providers to use non-HIPAA compliant solutions during the coronavirus pandemic

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency

The Notification put forward by the OCR allows for a more lenient use of remote communication technologies during the COVID-19 national emergency. This means that providers can use any non-public-facing product for telehealth, even if it isn’t fully HIPAA compliant, during the national public health emergency without risking penalties.

The Notification of Enforcement Discretion may seem like good news to those not used to remote medical work. It takes the stress of finding a HIPAA compliant platform off your shoulders and gets you more options. 

The truth is this healthcare act exists for a good reason. You should still choose a HIPAA compliant solution because:

  • The security of your patient’s sensitive data won’t be compromised
  • The reputation of your practice won’t be compromised
  • A HIPAA compliant solution is much more likely to offer healthcare-specific features
  • If you decide to continue practicing telemedicine after the pandemic, you’ll be able to continue using your platform of choice and won’t be forced to transition to a new one, disorienting your patients

If you still believe you’ll be fine using Hangouts for telemedicine, here are some problems you’ll encounter:

  1. Hangouts doesn’t allow you to share documents
  2. Hangouts doesn’t integrate with EHRs
  3. Hangouts doesn’t allow you to check in your patients
  4. Hangouts doesn’t replicate in-person workflows everyone is used to
  5. Hangouts doesn’t allow you to send automated reminders

You can’t share documents via Hangouts

The single greatest misgiving of this Google’s platform is the inability to transfer files. You can send pictures, which means your patients can snap a photo of a medical report or another document, but that’s as far as you can go with document sharing. 

Google recommends uploading files to Drive and linking to them in your chat. This is not a secure way to transfer PHI, and you have to involve another app for such a simple task.

Curogram doesn’t only allow you to send files in a completely HIPAA secure way, but it also makes it easy to send various kinds of medical documents. Before the appointment, patients have to fill an electronic intake form they’ll receive in a text, which doctors can then view in the PDF form. You can send us your preferred intake form, and we’ll digitize it for you. Patients can even e-sign forms via their mobile devices. 

Our mobile app for communicating with patients is the only HIPAA compliant solution of the kind thus far.

Post-appointment, you can send pre-made documents, such as exercise instructions, prescriptions, and pull visit summaries directly from the EHR, which leads us to the next point.

Hangouts doesn’t integrate with EHRs

You can’t sync Hangouts with EHRs, which is a major downside for a telemedicine solution. Your staff will lose a lot of time having to enter all the data twice, and you won’t be able to sync your patients’ visits with their demographic data.

As a platform made for medical professionals, Curogram integrates with almost any EHR there is. Apart from saving you a lot of time, EHR integration allows you to document and access anything easily and not have files scattered around. 

It takes less than 48 hours to integrate with any EHR thanks to Curogram’s proprietary technology. This is a great advantage over other telemedicine platforms as they can take months to complete an integration.

Curogram EHR integrations

Kareo

NextGen

Epic

Prime Clinical Systems

DrChrono

eClinicalWorks

Allscripts

Practice Fusion

AdvancedMD

Greenway

You can’t check in your patients properly with Hangouts

With Hangouts, there’s no way to prepare your patients for the appointment nor your doctors for their patients. You can’t send check-in forms via the platform, and there’s no way to know whether the patient is ready when you video call them. They could easily miss the call altogether if they don’t have Hangouts open in their browser. 

Curogram offers a virtual waiting room where patients can get ready. This room allows doctors to see how many patients are waiting for an appointment and if they are ready. In the meantime, nurses and MAs visit patients in the waiting room to check them in and prepare them so that doctors don’t have to waste any time. While they wait, they can attach any documents the doctor may need to go through during the visit.

Hangouts can’t mimic in-person doctors and nurses workflows

When a patient shows up for an in-person visit, there are internal workflows that make everything go smoothly. These workflows are different for doctors and nurses as they are both involved in the process. There’s usually a lot of going in and out of the room as everyone does their part.

Hangouts makes replicating this process impossible. If a nurse or MA calls the patient, they can’t leave the call to let them prepare or allow the doctor to enter. The call will end when the host leaves. This means that mimicking the in-person process would involve calling and hanging up several times, which could be frustrating for the patient.

Curogram supports different workflows for staff, doctors, and special doctors. Our platform makes the process streamlined and minimizes the time doctors have to spend worrying about technicalities. They go in and out of appointments while the staff takes care of the rest as they would in person.

During the appointment, doctors can also have assistants taking notes for them. This way, they can truly dedicate their undivided attention to the patient and make the visit as efficient as possible.

You can’t send automated visit reminders in Hangouts

You can’t schedule meetings in Hangouts, so you can’t use the app to make automated appointment reminders. You’d have to use another app for scheduling and reminders or have a staff member call or text patients. This is both unnecessary and time-consuming.

Even when it comes to in-person visits, patient reminders are important, but telemedicine visits reminders are essential. If a patient has to carve out time to leave their home, sit behind the wheel, and get to the clinic, they are less likely to forget that they have an appointment that day. 

An online appointment is different because a patient could be immersed in a Netflix show or a house chore minutes before the scheduled visit. They could easily forget about it.

Curogram’s HIPAA compliant SMS messaging platform allows you to send automated reminders 30 or even 15 minutes before the visit. Curogram is currently sending 500,000+ reminders per month, saving providers tons of money they would have lost on no-shows.

 

Google Hangouts

Curogram

Document sharing

No

Yes

EHR integration

No

Yes

Patient check-in

No

Yes

Workflows for doctors and staff

No

Yes

Automated visit reminders

No

Yes

5 things to consider when transitioning to telemedicine

For medical workers, transitioning to remote work makes a huge difference. It can be disorienting and difficult, especially if you’re struggling with inappropriate software that makes things even more complicated. That said, here are five things to consider when transitioning your medical practice online:

  1. You need a solution that patients won’t have difficulty using
  2. You need to make the transition easy for your employees
  3. You need a solution that can facilitate your communication with patients
  4. You need a secure staff-to-staff communication platform
  5. You need to set policies for remote work

Find a solution that patients can use easily

Not all your patients are tech-savvy—in fact, the majority of the older ones probably aren’t. If they are required to install and set up an app before the appointment, they will likely give up. Don’t take steps like downloading an app for granted. It may be easy to do for the majority, but many older people don’t even own smartphones.

Curogram solves this issue by auto-generating visit links. When it’s time for their appointment, patients only have to click the link, and the video will open in their browser.

Make the transition easy for your employees

If the telemedicine platform of your choice turns your employees’ responsibilities upside down, they’ll need a lot more time to adjust. It’s essential that your solution makes doctor and staff workflows similar to those they are used to.

With Curogram, you’ll have all the right tools to help everyone resume their roles from home and not have doctors waste time on administrative conundrums.

Find a solution that can facilitate communication with patients

Your staff should be able to communicate with patients through a single platform. If you use a solution such as Google Hangouts for video appointments, you won’t be able to use it for scheduling and sending reminders as well. Your staff might have to communicate with patients via their personal phones.

Our platform is an all-in-one solution that allows you to schedule and reschedule visits, send reminders, host appointments, and more. It utilizes a two-way SMS messaging system. You send your patients SMS messages from a Curogram-generated number that they can also respond to. You can see all their responses in one place.

Find a secure staff-to-staff communication platform

Your staff will need to have a communication platform where the data they transfer is secure. If you don’t find a telemedicine solution that incorporates this feature, they will have to find an alternative. They might end up using various chats that are not HIPAA compliant and compromise patients’ PHI.

Curogram provides a HIPAA compliant staff messaging feature. Your staff can talk about work, mental health, or just chat away using Curogram’s platform. All their communication will go through one platform and will be completely encrypted.

Set policies for working from home

Your staff will need to get adjusted to the new work environment—their home. There are many potential distractions to avoid and rules to set in order to be able to work efficiently. You can help them adjust by having work-from-home policies in place, such as:

  • Audio and visual requirements
  • Advice on how to set up a workstation at home
  • Advice on how to communicate to their families that they mustn’t be disturbed
  • Background requirements
  • Dress etiquette, etc.

Challenges you’ll experience in your first week of telemedicine

Transitioning to telemedicine is not going to be easy, especially if you rely on a solution not designed for use in healthcare, such as Google Hangouts. Here are three challenges you’ll experience and how to overcome them:

  • You’ll see fewer patients
  • You’ll waste a lot of time and lose money
  • Your staff will experience mental issues

You’ll see fewer patients

One of the reasons why you might see fewer patients is their confusion with the communication technology you choose. If they find it hard and complicated to get to the appointment, many of them will just give up.

Another problem lies in the fact that your doctors might get stuck with technical and administrative issues. A poor telemedicine solution will result in ten times fewer visits due to inadequate organization.

With Curogram, you’ll be able to streamline the whole process so that doctors don’t have to spend more than 15 minutes on each appointment. This will allow them to see a larger number of patients, and your patients will be happy because your staff will provide them with proper guidance.

You’ll waste a lot of time and lose money

All the patients you’ll lose due to a poor telemedicine solution will lead to a huge loss of revenue. Your costs will exceed your earnings if a doctor is only able to see a few patients a day.

Think about all the time that will be wasted due to inappropriate staff utilization if you choose Hangouts or a similar solution. Doctors will have to figure out how to onboard patients themselves, and nurses will be stuck on the phone reminding patients about their appointments.

You can avoid all these problems with Curogram. Some of the providers using our platform have experienced a 75% decrease in no-shows thanks to our auto-reminders. Imagine all the money they would have lost, but they haven’t. In only a couple of months, your phone call volume will drop by 50%, allowing your staff to focus on other things.

Your staff will experience mental health issues

Transitioning to remote work will be a colossal change for your employees, and they are bound to experience a lot of stress in the first couple of weeks. That’s why it’s important to let them know that they can discuss these issues freely and be heard.

A staff-friendly platform, such as Curogram, will make it easier for them to start working from home by allowing them to retain their old workflows and have a safe space to talk everything through. Having to use several platforms for different tasks would only add to the stress.

Wondering if other solutions are HIPAA compliant?

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Is Email HIPAA Compliant?

Is Texting HIPAA Compliant?

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Patient 2-Way Texting

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