More and more communication is happening online now, and while we can now avoid the risk of someone reading something confidential as it comes off the fax, digital communication is not without its risks.   

As we head into the holiday season when inboxes aren’t being monitored or being accessed by other staff who are covering,  it’s important to think about the following: 

1. Your Email Disclaimer

An email disclaimer can protect the contents within from being used inappropriately.  

It is a legal statement that stipulates the email is intended for the recipient only and contains a disclaimer for subjective views or errors.

Basically, it’s a way for you to mitigate your business from being sued if any information is to be used or shared inappropriately.  These are a must for all businesses, no matter what size, to ensure you’re doing what you can to protect you and your business. No-one is fool proof and sending the contents of an email to the wrong person or disclosing unintended information has happened before and will happen again.

It’s standard practice for risk management. It also protects employees who have access to multiple inboxes or where a job share arrangement means more than one person is using the same email address.

Grab your FREE one here – customised to your business:

2. Your Email Signature

Email signatures don’t need to be all legal and no fun – here are some ways to make your email signature more “fun” without compromising you or the company.

 ·        Link to a company blog

·        Have a link to join company newsletter

·        Social media links

·        If you support a charity or a cause – share some information about them

Remember, however, ANY email communication in a business context is a written form of communication, so its contents can go against you. Keep it professional and above board. 

Your email disclaimer should form part of your email signature and have it set it up so it automatically appends to all outbound emails. 

Make email signatures and disclaimers consistent across your business to avoid staff making their own changes and potentially creating unnecessary risks.

3. Effective Out of Office Communication

Email can also be a critical channel of communication when you or your staff are not in the office.  Aside from the legalities of having a solid email disclaimer, there are some further steps businesses can take when staff are out of the office.

Remember everything in writing reflects the company.  Therefore, I would encourage all businesses to have a templated “out of office” email to ensure consistency and that nothing is disclosed that could impact your business.

Further, if you have staff that are operating in urgent or critical areas – these emails need to be “manned” to ensure business continuity; especially over the holiday season. 

It also acts as a risk mitigant for employees from sending something they shouldn’t, if they think that at any time, Management can access their work email. It’s poor business practice to leave inboxes unattended for weeks while staff are away, not to mention risky.

Here are the important elements for an out of office:

·   A subject title that lets your recipient know this is an “out-of-office” message

·   The dates you’re out of the office, and the date you’ll be back in action

·   Whether you can be contacted, and if not, who can be in your absence

·   Who they can speak to in your absence, what they’re responsible for and how they can get in touch

STAY PROTECTED: Make sure whoever can access an email inbox is clearly recorded and documented to avoid unapproved access, and that passwords and logins aren’t left lying around the office. 

4. Electronic Signatures

A question came to me recently about using electronic signatures to sign documents sent via email. This relates to the effective use of emails as a legal communication channel:

The question was:

What are the legalities around signing letters / documents? If we are writing letters to GP’s regarding patients – can we use the phrase “Electronically Signed and Sighted” I’m trying to cut down on the time and cost of printing a letter – signing it – and then scanning back into to send?

My answer:

The issue of electronic signatures has not yet been definitively resolved. While the Courts generally accept the use of electronic signatures, issues can arise where the other party raises arguments as to enforceability.

These issues however are somewhat removed  when applying e-signatures to medical documents, referrals and records.

The National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA) has released recommendations for the affixation of e-signatures.

The Health Insurance Regulations 1975 (Cth) requires referrals to specialists to be signed by the referring practitioner in order for the patient to be able to claim increased benefits from the Medicare program, but there are no other formal requirements for general correspondence or specialist letters. This is ultimately a risk assessment process that will be unique to your practice and the kinds of correspondence you would like to attach digital signatures to.

The NEHTA has determined the risks generally as ‘low’.  They have however made several recommendations, particularly in relation to referrals.  These are:

  • the document should be reviewed and signed electronically by the responsible practitioner;
  • the HPI-I number should be included; and
  • the document should be sealed with a private key.

Depending on the type (and indeed quantity) of letters you are sending, you may find that some signatures can simply be affixed digitally, while others, particularly referrals, or even imagery requests, might best be made in ink.

In summary – in Australia there is no real distinction between ink and electronic signatures and this hasn’t been fully tested in the Courts.  

How you use the use of electronic signatures and document signing platforms ultimately comes down to the risk assessment of the particular Practice or Business. 

The use of electronic communications and signing documents online is becoming more ubiquitous, which from a legal perspective, can open a can of worms. 

At You Legal, we embrace the use of online tools for signing documents so there is absolutely legal ways to do this.

If you would like any advice on how to protect your business or practice in regard to electronic communication – contact us here.