Orange email envelope with medical symbol

Healthcare Email Marketing: Tips on Strategy and HIPAA Compliance

Healthcare is an $11.9 trillion business with a unique proposition. Whether we like it or not, we are all customers with a lifelong subscription. However, this doesn't mean we don't choose how, where, and when we engage with the industry, so healthcare companies must market their services just like any other business.

When it comes to healthcare email marketing there are some specific challenges, considerations, and opportunities to consider. Done well, healthcare email marketing improves the patient experience while supporting organizational goals.

Healthcare email marketing challenges

Like many other customer-focused industries, modern healthcare is built on a mountain of data.

Every patient, every appointment, every prescription, and every procedure creates a mass of information that is fed back into the system and used to analyze, treat, and pay for every engagement.

Looking at the industry from the perspective of a marketer, it should be an absolute treasure trove. However, experience tells me that there are often a lot of opportunities left on the table when it comes to healthcare email marketing.

The reason for this shortfall was perhaps best explained to me at a marketing conference for independent optometrists, where, prior to the pandemic, I spoke about the opportunities available to the industry via email marketing.

The event organizer told me that despite healthcare being a highly competitive, commercial space, many of the people at the heart of the industry do not consider themselves as typical business people. Instead, their primary concern is the wellbeing of their patients, and the marketing and selling of their services do not always come naturally to them.

Addressing concerns about healthcare emails

illustration of caring healthcare providers in white labcoats

In an industry where patient privacy is paramount, it’s more often the fear of the unknown that restricts marketing deployment rather than reality. To put the problem into a language that many healthcare professionals will understand, they are simply suffering from the digital marketing equivalent of white coat hypertension

Healthcare leaders tense up at the idea of marketing just as some patients experience higher blood pressure when visiting their doctor. As marketers, it’s our job to work on our “bedside manner” and set their minds at ease. 

The good news is, healthcare email marketing doesn’t always have to be so clinical. Sometimes it’s just about providing a better service for patients while managing efficiencies in the day-to-day operations of their business. That’s a prescription for better marketing that every healthcare professional and marketer can get behind.

How is email used in healthcare?

Based on the assumption that healthcare is an industry like any other, the way it uses email should be familiar to anyone involved in the deployment of the medium. While there are issues relating to privacy (we’ll get on to that later), it should be remembered that there are already many laws in place that govern the legal distribution of email covering every industry, including healthcare.

 Additionally, while healthcare is a multifaceted industry, an orthodontist will almost certainly market their service differently than an oncologist; there are healthcare email marketing strategies that everyone can deploy.

1. Transactional healthcare emails

These could be emails confirming and reminding patients about appointments or relating to billing and insurance issues.

Transactional emails reduce a healthcare provider’s reliance on phone calls and traditional mail, which add considerable cost and time to the process of effectively communicating with patients. Transactional emails also provide an instantly accessible record on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop, meaning patients don’t have to save every scrap of paper they receive from their healthcare provider.

2. Marketing emails

Some healthcare providers have a great deal in common with lifestyle brands. Opticians, dentists, and cosmetic clinics will always have something to sell, whether it's designer frames, contact lens subscriptions, teeth whitening services, or skin treatments.

However, healthcare email marketing can also promote better public health campaigns such as flu vaccine programs, smoking cessation support, or weight loss clinics.

Certain healthcare organizations may want to let subscribers know about ways they can better serve patients. For example, a medical imaging clinic could promote the latest technology it uses to diagnose patients. Or, healthcare email marketing could be used to highlight the experience of certain physicians in support of brand reputation and trust.

3. Patient health emails 

This is where healthcare providers and email marketers get a bit more patient-focused and send targeted email campaigns based on individual patient's needs, interests, or health goals. But it’s also where marketers could cross the line in terms of compliance with privacy laws.

This email strategy could focus on support and community groups, the latest research on a particular condition, blog content and other resources, or public health messages.

More targeted campaigns could deliver specific information regarding an individual’s health. However, this is when you need to start being very careful about patient privacy. Instead of using a patient’s Protected Heath Information (PHI), you may want to encourage people to voluntarily subscribe to health-focused newsletters related to their lives.

How privacy laws impact healthcare email marketing

email subscriber next to personal info icons

The issue of privacy is perhaps the main reason why many healthcare professionals remain suspicious about email marketing. The good news is, email privacy is an issue that has been thoroughly explored, legislated, and includes specific guidance created for healthcare professionals.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) grants healthcare providers the right to communicate with their patients providing they apply reasonable safeguards when doing so to prevent unintentional disclosures.

Standard email marketing best practices such as utilizing double opt-ins are thoroughly recommended. Care should also be taken when disclosing treatment-related communications. As a general rule-of-thumb, it is always better to check with the patient first before sharing certain information via what may be an insecure email address.

Best Practices for HIPAA compliant emails:

Erin Gilday of Little Light Copywriting has experience in healthcare email marketing and provides some advice on HIPAA compliance.

1. Encrypt your most senstive emails

Encryption isn’t required for HIPAA compliant emails, but it will certainly help protect patient privacy. Failing to encrypt healthcare emails is a risk. Find out more about HIPAA email encryption requirements from HIPAA Journal.

2. Don’t be a shady marketer

By this, Erin means you should be following best practices, respecting your subscribers, and avoiding tricky tactics to build your list. No one wants (or expects) to be spammed by their healthcare provider.

3. Resist the urge to over-personalize

While you may have a lot of valuable data at your disposal, using it in email marketing could violate HIPAA laws. But that doesn’t mean personalization in healthcare email marketing is completely off-limits.

Erin’s recommendations on email personalization are actually on the strict side of HIPAA compliance. According to HIPAA Journal, healthcare email marketing can include basic personalization without violating the law:

“HIPAA does not prohibit the electronic transmission of PHI. Electronic communications, including email, are permitted, although HIPAA-covered entities must apply reasonable safeguards when transmitting ePHI to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of data.

It is not a HIPAA violation to email patient names per se, although patient names and other PHI should not be included in the subject lines of emails as the information could easily be viewed by unauthorized individuals.”

For particularly sensitive healthcare issues, it will always be better to use email as a generic trigger to book an appointment than to share specific information relating to a condition or illness.

It’s also wise to speak with third-party service providers, including your ESP, about safeguards they have in place for HIPAA-compliant email marketing.

Healthcare providers are also bound by a number of international and local regulations, including GDPR, CASL, CAN-SPAM, and CCPA. While each of these regulations has its own nuances, there is a common theme of permission that runs throughout them all.   

How does healthcare email marketing drive engagement?

Lack of patient engagement is a big problem in the healthcare industry, with millions of patients missing appointments with physicians and other healthcare professionals every year. 

Regardless of whether a patient turns up or not, healthcare organizations still have to pay their staff and cover their bills. It has been estimated that every missed appointment costs a physician an average of $200. The cost of these missed appointments adds up to more than £150 billion a year.

However, time wasted in the healthcare sector can have a much more profound impact. With every missed appointment potentially delaying critical care or blocking other patients from accessing a service, to say wasted time in the healthcare sector is a life or death issue might not be as overstated as it sounds.

Whether you look at the problem as a financial or human cost, poor patient engagement is not something that can easily be ignored. Email acts as the perfect reminder for a patient to keep or reschedule their appointments, saving money and potentially saving lives.

In public health, prevention is always cheaper than a cure. In this respect, email serves as an excellent communication channel delivering the right message, to the right person, at the right time.

Email has the power to reach communities that no other communication strategy can achieve.

The power of email was demonstrated to me while working with a UK-based charity helping homeless people access essential health services. The charity discovered that while many of their clients led chaotic lives, they often had access to a smartphone and could access email using free Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces even if they couldn’t afford call credits.  

Accessibility in healthcare emails

accessibility icon emerges from an email envelope

Healthcare emails will be some of the most important messages in the inbox. That means designing and developing accessible emails should be a priority.

US legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs or activities. It also demands equal access to electronic information and data comparable to those who do not have disabilities.

If your patients cannot access an email because they are visually impaired or have difficulty engaging with its content due to a condition like dyslexia, you are not only wasting an opportunity to engage with them; you may actually be breaking the law.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), digital accessibility (including emails) is a right and not a privilege. With nearly 11,000 suits filed in federal court, this isn't an idle threat. Because of allegedly inaccessible websites, several healthcare providers have already face the wrath of ADA and risked fines of up to $150,000.

Healthcare email marketing your patients can trust

Patient trust is the biggest hurdle healthcare providers face when using email to communicate with their patients or clients. Less-than-perfect emails that don't render correctly across multiple email clients can erode that trust (and when everyone is your customer, they will be accessing their emails on all manner of devices).

Email on Acid is a comprehensive pre-deployment platform that includes an automated email checklist. You’ll find a range of features to ensure your emails arrive as intended. Use the technology to manage the challenges of email deliverability many healthcare marketers experience and stay on the right side of legislation relating to accessibility.  Plus, preview how emails look in different mailboxes before you hit send.

It turns out, in email marketing, just like in healthcare, prevention is always better than the cure. With the support of Email on Acid, you’ll feel better about your email marketing strategy in no time at all.  

Boost ROI with Accessible Emails!

People all over the world live with visual impairments. How many of them are on your list? Can they read and act on your email campaigns? Email Accessibility is about more than just improving your reach. It shows empathy for every subscriber. Use Sinch Email on Acid to check accessibility before you hit send.

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