Guide to HIPAA-Compliant Digital Marketing for Healthcare

by Sara Vicioso   |   May 22, 2024   |   Clock Icon 7 min read
Female doctor writing on clipboard

Healthcare marketing is vital to building brand awareness, generating leads, and acquiring new patients. However, unlike other industries, healthcare businesses have the added responsibility to comply with the Health Insurance and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and protect patient privacy.

Ignoring HIPAA compliance can lead to serious legal consequences and damage your organization's reputation.

But what are HIPAA rules for marketing, and how can your team ensure that your campaigns are compliant? As a digital marketing agency with experience in healthcare as it pertains to abiding by HIPAA compliance, we have years of experience navigating the nuances of running campaigns with positive ROI while advocating for our target audience’s privacy. Read on to learn the essentials of HIPAA and strategies for HIPAA-compliant marketing.

What is HIPAA?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) created standards for using protected health information (PHI).

HIPAA includes several rules regarding privacy, security, and electronic exchange of PHI, but marketing professionals should specifically understand HIPAA's privacy and security rules.

Privacy Rule

The HIPAA Privacy Rule "establishes national standards to protect individuals' medical records and other individually identifiable health information."

Under the Privacy Rule, healthcare organizations must obtain written authorization to use any patient data for marketing purposes.

Security Rule

The Security Rule "requires covered entities and business associates to maintain reasonable and appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards for protecting electronic PHI."

Covered Entity

Covered entities include healthcare providers, doctors, clinics, pharmacies, and others that transmit information in electronic form during a transaction. This includes government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance companies, and company health plans.

Business Associate

The Department of Health and Human Services defines a Business Associate as "a person or entity that performs certain functions or activities that involve the use or disclosure of protected health information on behalf of, or provides services to, a covered entity."

Marketing professionals and agencies can be considered business associates when working with healthcare providers who must comply with HIPAA regulations.

Why is HIPAA-Compliance Important in Healthcare Marketing?

Patients must trust their healthcare providers, so they must feel confident that their private information will be safe from data breaches and not used in marketing campaigns or promotional materials.

Healthcare organizations must follow HIPAA regulations to avoid penalties, fees, and potential legal action.

How Does HIPAA Define Marketing?

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, "marketing is defined as communication about a product or service that encourages recipients to purchase or use the product or service."

Visit HHS.gov to learn more about HIPAA and marketing.

Best Practices for HIPAA-Compliant Healthcare Marketing

Understanding HIPAA regulations helps healthcare businesses and marketing teams create compliant campaigns and expand their business.

Follow these best practices to maintain patient trust and create HIPAA-compliant marketing campaigns.

Patient Authorization

Healthcare organizations must have written authorization to use PHI for marketing purposes. The best way to ensure you get the proper approval is to include these forms on physical or digital patient intake materials.

Consent forms must clearly outline the purpose of using patient information, how it will be used, and who will see it.

To further safeguard patient information, healthcare providers should remove or anonymize any PHI that is shared with vendors or used in marketing platforms.

Patient Opt-Out

In addition to consent forms, patients must be able to opt out of marketing-related communication, such as emails and SMS messages. All marketing materials should include unsubscribe options.

Patient Reviews and Testimonials

Patient reviews, whether collected directly or through third-party listings like your Google Business Profiles, can be valuable tools for building social proof and improving organic search rankings—and you may want to include them on your website or in case studies. However, just like other marketing materials, you must have patient authorization.

Healthcare providers must exercise caution when responding to patient reviews on public forums. For example, a doctor cannot acknowledge that a reviewer is a patient and should use vague language that doesn't confirm that a person visited a healthcare facility or reference any specific services, such as saying "thank you" instead of "thank you for coming in."

Learn more about compliant vs. non-compliant language when responding to patient reviews.

HIPAA-Compliant Audience Targeting

Audience targeting helps you reach potential patients and tailor messaging to resonate with a specific audience.

In healthcare marketing, however, you cannot use some targeting options that may misuse patient information.

This includes:

  • Look-alike audiences. Groups that share similar characteristics.

  • Retargeting. Targeting users who previously visited your website.

To create HIPAA-compliant audience segments, avoid using PHI or medical treatment information and use general demographic information like age, gender, or location.

For example, a Rheumatologist may want to target audience members between the ages of 30 and 50 who are more likely to develop Rheumatoid arthritis and need their services.

Using HIPAA-Compliant Marketing Tools and Platforms

A marketing tool or platform is only considered HIPAA compliant if there is a Business Associate Agreement (BAA). Non-compliant platforms can still be used, but it's vital to understand how to configure these tools properly.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is not HIPAA compliant but can be used with specific configurations.

Google specifies these configurations for healthcare organizations using Google Analytics:

  • HIPAA-regulated entities using Google Analytics must refrain from exposing PHI

  • ​​Users should not set Google Analytics tags on authenticated pages that are likely to be HIPAA-covered

  • Users should not set Google Analytics tags on unauthenticated pages related to the provision of healthcare services

Because of these strict regulations, always work with a professional marketing or analytics team to create your campaigns and set up your tracking.

Read more about HIPAA and Google Analytics.

Paid Media

Commonly used paid media platforms like Google, Facebook, X, and Instagram are not HIPAA compliant; however, you can still use these platforms with the proper precautions.

As we mentioned earlier, you cannot use advanced audience targeting options on these platforms, but you can create audience segments using non-identifiable, basic demographic information.

You must also have written authorization to use patient data in any photos or videos shared on social media.

If you're still unsure what you can post or how to set up HIPAA-compliant social ads, contact our paid social or paid search experts to help you get started.

Precautions to Safeguard Patient Data

Beyond marketing tools and platforms, ensure you follow these best practices for your website, tracking forms, or any other systems where you may input patient data.

  • Assign login credentials, like usernames and passwords, for authorized users

  • Setup two-factor authentication (2FA) for added security

  • Create access controls to restrict who can access systems and data

  • Use data encryption to prevent unauthorized access

Promoting Your Healthcare Organization With HIPAA-Compliant Marketing

Understanding and abiding by HIPAA guidelines is a legal obligation for healthcare marketers and essential to building trust and integrity. While there may be an initial learning curve, creating successful campaigns that maintain privacy while simultaneously building brand awareness and driving patient acquisition is possible.

Always exercise caution, get written authorization before using patient data, and avoid using PHI in marketing materials or audience targeting. Work with a team of marketing experts to avoid penalties and ensure you follow HIPAA regulations.

Ready to get started? Learn more about how partnering with a marketing agency like Workshop Digital can help you build digital marketing strategies for healthcare.

Freshpaint logo.

Workshop Digital is in partnership with Freshpaint, a Healthcare Privacy Platform that bridges the gap between patient privacy and digital marketing strategies by helping marketers avoid sharing sensitive data with tools that aren't HIPAA-compliant.

Portrait of Sara Vicioso

Sara Vicioso

Sara brings over 10 years of experience in the digital marketing space, having spent a large portion of her career focused on Paid Media strategy for her clients. However, paid media wasn't enough. Sara is passionate about audience-first marketing strategies, finding customers where they are regardless of channel (which may be heavily driven by her background in Sociology) which led to the desire to build multichannel marketing strategies for her clients.

She brings a wealth of knowledge in industries such as manufacturing, industrial, SaaS, healthcare, education, e-commerce, & more.

Originally from San Diego, California, Sara found her new home in Austin, Texas, a city that captured her heart with its BBQ scene, country music, paddleboarding scene, and welcoming community. Outside the office, Sara is a DIY enthusiast, a lover of dogs (particularly her shih-tzu, Peanut), and will never turn away from the next travel adventure.