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HHS Issues Guidelines on Audio-Only Telehealth Use

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   June 14, 2022

The Health and Human Services Department's Office for Civil Rights has released guidelines on how healthcare providers can use audio-only telehealth platforms, including the phone, that meet requirements set forth by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Federal officials are cracking down on healthcare organizations using audio-only telehealth platforms – such as the telephone – to deliver healthcare services.

The Health and Human Services Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has released guidance on how providers can use "remote communication technologies to provide audio-only telehealth services" without running afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which focuses on how sensitive health information is disclosed over various communications channels.

“Audio telehealth is an important tool to reach patients in rural communities, individuals with disabilities, and others seeking the convenience of remote options," OCR Director Lisa J. Pino said in a press release. "This guidance explains how the HIPAA Rules permit health care providers and plans to offer audio telehealth while protecting the privacy and security of individuals’ health information.”

Audio-only telehealth platforms have been heavily regulated in the past, and in many cases healthcare providers aren't permitted to conduct healthcare via that technology. But during the pandemic, which forced providers to move away from in-person services and conduct more business via telehealth, the federal government issued a series of waivers, including one on HIPAA enforcement, aimed at expanding telehealth use and coverage.

Telehealth advocates have noted that the pandemic has proven the value of audio-only telehealth, particularly in rural and remote areas and for people who don't have access to audio-visual telemedicine platforms or rely on the telephone as their only means of communication. While the federal waivers are scheduled to end with the public health emergency (PHE), some states have already taken action to permit the use of audio-only telehealth for certain services, and several bills before Congress aim to make those freedoms permanent and nationwide.

The OCR guidance serves to remind healthcare organizations that they need to be careful how they use audio-only telehealth during the public health emergency, and that those rules will tighten when the PHE ends.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.

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