Seeing patients from home (and staying HIPAA-compliant): A guide for GCs

By: Kate Lynch MS, CGC, Rachel Riesgraf MS, CGC, and RJ Okamura MS, CGC

If you’re reading this, you may have found yourself at home in your PJs, surrounded by dirty dishes, and utterly confused as to how you’re supposed to juggle home demands with work demands—and stay HIPAA-compliant in the process. 

Believe it or not, it is possible to have a productive—and compliant—day at home, even if you’re sharing a space with kids, pets, and your partner. Our team has been successfully working remotely for years, and we’re here to lend our support and offer best practices. 

Before we get into compliance recommendations, we thought it’d be helpful to first provide tips on how to move from the clinic to a home office. 

Establish a morning routine

Or, better yet, follow the same routine you followed when you were going to the clinic.

  • Wake up at the same time you normally do, make your bed, shower, and dress professionally. We know it’s tempting to stay in your PJs, but we promise you’ll feel better if you don’t.
  • Enjoy using what used to be your commute or school drop-off time to eat breakfast with your family, tidy your working space, or finish that last load of laundry.

Create a dedicated working space and office hours

When working from home, it’s easy to blur the boundaries between work-life and home-life. By establishing structure ahead of time, you’ll be better equipped to handle the day with ease.

  • Carve out a dedicated workspace, even if it’s just a seat at your dining table. If you’re planning to utilize video conferencing instead of the phone, it’s a good idea to find a workspace that’s not only quiet, but that looks relatively tidy and professional (i.e., not your bed).
  • Create structure by sticking to a regular routine (but allow some flexibility to sneak into your day). If you worked 9 to 5 at the clinic, try to work 9 to 5 at home. Put lunch on your schedule for the same time everyday. If you need to take an impromptu break to entertain or care for your child, do it! Feeling antsy or getting fatigued? Go for a walk or phone a friend or colleague.

Strategies for working with kids at home

Having kids at home is an additional challenge, but there are several strategies that can help.

  • If you have school-age children, encourage them to do some e-learning alongside you. Now is a great time to model a focused, diligent work ethic for your children, and to let them learn a little more about what you do.
  • Take advantage of your children’s sleep schedule. Early mornings, late evenings, and nap time can provide much needed quiet time for doing focused work.
  • If you have kids and the weather is nice, take your laptop outside and let them play in your yard. They’ll be entertained, and you can work without worrying if they’re okay.
  • Let your family know when you’re starting a work-related phone or video call. More importantly, let them make noise when you’re not on calls, so they’re more likely to respect quiet time when you are.
  • Loosen screen time rules for kids. Sign-up for educational entertainment apps, like Khan Academy, join a digital library or storytelling session (this one features astronauts reading from space!), take a virtual zoo or museum tour, or enroll your kids in a digital art or yoga class.

Make friends with technology

It is important to find video conferencing tools that are HIPAA-compliant. Luckily, there are a host of software options like SimplePractice or Clocktree that can help you securely manage scheduling, video conferencing, messaging, document sharing, and even billing. For calling or texting patients, consider using an app like Spruce to ensure everything stays secure.

Before you sign up for anything, make sure you consult with your hospital system to see what their software, or other requirements, are for working and communicating with patients remotely. You might be surprised to find that they already have systems and policies in place that you can implement too.

If video conferencing seems daunting (or if you don’t have a tidy space at home), you can always take phone calls. Just make sure you’re the only person in the room, and always ask the patient if there’s anyone else on their end so you know who you’re talking to. 

Take paperless pedigrees & place HIPAA-compliant orders from home

Technology can help you stay compliant in other ways beyond meeting with patients. For example, Invitae’s Family History Tool and CancerGeneConnect allow you to securely build, modify, share, and save patient pedigrees in your web browser or on an iPad, and can even help you place genetic testing orders more quickly. Whether you choose to use Invitae’s tools, or you prefer another solution, it’s important to keep your pedigrees off paper and securely online. Also, always be sure to verify with your organization before putting PHI in anything other than their own EMR. You can also order tests online and have a saliva collection kit shipped directly to your patients; learn more here. 

Rethink the way you use visual aids

If you’re using video conferencing, you can share visual aids with patients by sharing your screen. But if you’re planning to take phone calls instead, you may want to consider sending materials to your patients either ahead of time or after the call. However, after many years of providing care through telegenetics, we can reassure you that most concepts can be effectively communicated to patients verbally.

  • Don’t have materials to send? Invitae’s patient resources page is a one-stop shop that contains shareable videos, FAQs, brochures, and downloadables for a variety of patient indications.

Avoid taking notes on paper (or get a paper shredder)

Be mindful of papers, files, and charts. Don’t write things down on paper unless you can be diligent about shredding it as soon as you’ve transcribed the information to your patient’s secure digital file. Not all shredders are created equal. Ask your institution for guidance about shredder specifications. 

Get social—digitally 

Actively reach out to colleagues, so you don’t feel isolated.They’re likely experiencing a similar situation and may be able to share helpful tips and stories. Some of our favorite ideas for staying in touch include: 

  • Arrange or join virtual coffee or happy hours
  • Sign up for a webinar to earn CEUs together, then schedule a phone call or video conference to discuss the material after
  • Plan a virtual roundtable discussion where everyone shares their latest learnings and challenges from the field

Be kind to yourself 

Transitions take time. You might not get as much done in the day as you used to, and that’s okay. Be kind to yourself when the day feels rocky, and celebrate when things go smoothly. The most important thing is that you’re doing the best you can in these unprecedented times. Everyone understands this situation is unique and we’re all experiencing similar challenges.