Konstantin Kalinin
Konstantin Kalinin
Head of Content
January 5, 2024

As of February 2024, healthcare organizations have anted up over $137 million in penalties for violating the HIPAA regulations. I bet they’d readily invest this money in protecting patients’ data and enhancing products.

When we originally posted this blog, the figure was a “mere” $13 million in HIPAA penalties. This sharp rise highlights the ongoing relevance and urgency of HIPAA compliance within the healthcare industry. It underlines why we can’t stress enough the need for investing in robust data protection and developing secure, HIPAA-compliant apps.

If you’re on board, let’s dive into the secrets of developing a HIPAA-compliant app. I suggest we err on the side of caution and make sure you follow HIPAA best practices from the get-go to avoid surprises during your medical app launch.

Table of Contents

  1. What is HIPAA and Why is It Important?
  2. What Does HIPAA Compliance Mean for Healthcare App Developers?
  3. What HIPAA Means for Patients and Hospitals
  4. PHI as per HIPAA
  5. Health App Use Scenarios & HIPAA
  6. HIPAA Checklist for mHealth App Developers
  7. 5 Steps to Make an App HIPAA-Compliant
    1. Choose and implement HIPAA-as-a-service backend
    2. Separate PHI from other app data
    3. Encrypt throughout
    4. Run audit and penetration tests
    5. Implement long-term strategy with logging
  8. Features of HIPAA-Compliant Software
  9. HIPAA & COVID-19
  10. OCR Tools for HIPAA Compliance
  11. How Much Does it Cost to Build a HIPAA-Compliant App?
  12. How Much Does HIPAA Ignorance Cost?
  13. Our Experience in HIPAA-Compliant App Development

What is HIPAA and Why is It Important?

Let’s recap what HIPAA is, why you need it, when you need it, and what terminology you may need to impress your boss when discussing HIPAA compliance.

HIPAA Compliant App Development: Definitions

HIPAA basics

HIPAAHealth Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — is a set of rules (a public law, really) introduced in 1996 and last updated in 2013. Can you believe that? Yes, the main law governing your healthcare app’s security requirements hasn’t changed for over 7 years.

Well, yes – there was the intro of the Omnibus Rule in 2015, but the most recent happenings are just the determination to update the HIPAA Privacy Rule in 2023.

The good news is you won’t have to read 100 something pages worth of legislation trying to define technical parameters for privacy and security in healthcare applications.

The HIPAA act consists of:

  • Privacy Rule
  • Security Rule
  • Enforcement Rule
  • Omnibus Rule, and
  • Breach Notification Rule

I won’t bother you to death with what each rule implies, but together they describe what a health app needs to have to be considered secure. Plus, the rules set forth procedures that covered entities need to adopt for keeping patient data safe.

OCR — Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — are the people who come knocking on your door if they get a claim about HIPAA issues with your app. They also have plenty of medical information on the HIPAA subject if you feel like it’s wiki-time.

office of civil rights logo

Phraseology to discuss HIPAA with CEOs

As soon as you ask, “Does every health app need to be HIPAA-compliant?” you’ll find yourself juggling these few terms you need to know to discuss HIPAA app development seriously.

PHI — protected health information — comes as part of the answer to your question in that HIPAA is applicable whenever a health app handles individually identifiable health information:

  • the patient’s physical or mental health or condition
  • the fact of the provision of health care to an individual
  • the payment details for the provision of healthcare to an individual

HIPAA compliance in healthcare app development

Covered entities are clinics, private practices, individual providers, healthcare plans, clearinghouses, and insurers, all of whom need to comply with the HIPAA requirements.

Business Associate is a person or organization that deals with individually identifiable health information on behalf of a covered entity. In our context, it may be a healthcare app developer or a cloud service provider who processes your patients’ data. They need to sign a business associate agreement before working with medical data.

Navigating HIPAA compliance application development is a multifaceted journey. It’s not just about creating a useful healthcare app, but also ensuring that the way you collect, store, and process PHI adheres to the stringent standards set by HIPAA rules.

What Does HIPAA Compliance Mean for Healthcare App Developers?

The HIPAA regulations broadly describe three types of data security safeguards:

  • Physical
  • Administrative
  • Technical

As a healthcare app developer, our team most often deals with technical data safeguards. However, you, as a covered entity or business associate, also need to take into account physical and administrative data safeguards when developing a HIPAA-compliant app. Let’s quickly scan through each, shall we?

HIPAA compliant apps

Technical data safeguards

Technical data safeguards include things like encryption, secure connections and protocols, and all other technology-related security best practices applicable to health apps.

Physical data safeguards

What’s usually implied here is limiting physical access to servers and other equipment that may contain PHI or enable sensitive data sharing. Besides, you need to have an adequate firewall and antivirus software deployed for adequate physical safeguards protecting your healthcare software.

Administrative data safeguards

Finally, administrative data safeguards cover personnel training and management, maintenance of privacy policies and procedures, privacy practices notices, etc.

Qualified HIPAA app developers will help you with the physical and technical safeguards, and the administrative safeguards will mostly depend on you. However, when you aim to build a HIPAA compliant web application, the expertise of a team specializing in healthcare software development becomes crucial. They understand the intricate demands of HIPAA and can guide you through the process, ensuring your application not only meets regulatory standards but also delivers value to its users.

Related: Comprehensive Guide to Medical Billing Automation

What HIPAA Means for Patients and Hospitals

Patients obviously get some benefits from implemented HIPAA policies, besides the fact that their sensitive data remains protected. What are these advantages?

HIPAA for patients

1. Being in control of who gets access to data

Patients have to sign a consent form before their info can be accessed and shared between licensed medical workers.

2. Availability of personal health data on demand

Patients can request all their data from a medical organization, and the software compliant with HIPAA requirements will need to export all this data and deliver it to them.

3. Ability to add corrections and instant sharing

Patients can ask healthcare personnel to update their records and share them with other providers. According to HIPAA, such medical data should be instantly shared via digital means.

HIPAA for hospitals

1. Keep patient data safe

2. Store data in an industry-recognizable standard

3. Get consent from patients for data sharing

PHI as per HIPAA

Let’s discuss what information your software should protect according to HIPAA rules. Broadly speaking, any individually identifiable health information stored or transferred by covered entities or business associates falls into this category. Therefore, the software may include the following:

Patients’ physical or mental health conditions

  • description of the provision of health care to an individual
  • any lab results, imagery, or similar artifacts

Demographic information

  • name, address, birth date, social security number
  • admission date, discharge date, date of death
  • photos and biometric identifiers
  • phone/fax/email/IP address, etc.

Payment data

  • credit cards, account numbers
  • health plan info
  • medical record numbers

When you write HIPAA compliant applications, it’s crucial to implement stringent measures that prevent unauthorized access, thereby ensuring the confidentiality of all this sensitive information.

At the same time, some bits of this information can be still available without HIPAA protection, but only when no directly tied to an individual. For example, some data can be anonymized and made available for medical research.

Health App Use Scenarios & HIPAA

You might be still wondering about two aspects of HIPAA:

  • Does HIPAA apply to health data that patients add and manage in mhealth apps on their own?
  • Is there a case when an app developer doesn’t need to comply with the HIPAA rules?

HIPAA compliant app developers

Here are a few scenarios that will help you answer these questions and adjust your HIPAA mobile app development process.

Scenario #1

A user downloads the app from the App Store and populates it with her glucose data from a personal glucometer.

HIPAA compliance: not required as no PHI is created, received, maintained, or transmitted on behalf of a covered entity or business associate.

Scenario #2

A patient exports the details of his disease from his clinic’s EHR and imports this data into an m-health app to manage it there.

HIPAA compliance: not required because no covered entity is involved in this mobile development case.

Scenario #3

Following her doctor’s advice, a patient downloads an app from the App Store to manage her weight and calorie intake and send reports from the app to her doctor.

HIPAA compliance: not required because no electronic protected health information (PHI) is transmitted.

Scenario #4

A patient gets an app to manage his chronic condition from the App Store. He then sets up the app to share his health data with his clinic’s EHR (the app does not belong to the clinic but has an interoperability arrangement to securely share patient data with it).

HIPAA compliance: not required as the app does not handle PHI data on behalf of a covered entity or business associate.

HIPAA App Developers

Scenario #5

A patient downloads a clinic’s remote patient monitoring app from the App Store. All health data that the patient enters automatically syncs with the clinic’s EHR system.

HIPAA compliance: required.

HIPAA App Development banner 1

Scenario #6

A patient gets her health plan’s app from the App Store to manage her claims and health plan records.

HIPAA compliance: required.

Building a HIPAA compliance app becomes especially critical when dealing with health-related scenarios where sensitive patient data is being transferred to or from covered entities or business associates. As you can see, the key to understanding HIPAA compliance requirements is to double-check whether:

  • your app developer creates, receives, maintains, or transmits PHI on your behalf
  • your patients works with a random health app or specifically with your application
  • your patients have full control over sending their health data outside the app

HIPAA Checklist for mHealth App Developers

What’s interesting about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is that on its 114 pages, you won’t find a list of best practices or recommendations for using, e.g., specific methods of encrypting patient health data. Still, HIPAA for app developers should obviously bear a lot of implications.

Related: How to Make Make a Medical App

Like I mentioned, the law has been sitting without changes since 2013. How do you think it manages to stay relevant for so long? That’s right, by being as general as possible. Here’s a good example:

emergency access procedure definition

That’s all they say about that in HIPAA. Does it make your life easier and explain how to make a HIPAA-compliant app? I bet it raises a lot of questions, like, “What do we regard as an emergency?”, “What emergency access procedures should we set up?”, “Do I need to allow some kind of backdoor to the app for authorized personnel?”, “How is it different from authorized users accessing patient information during non-emergencies?”.

Understanding and abiding by the HIPAA law is a fundamental requirement when you aim to create a HIPAA compliant web app, ensuring you provide the safest environment for users’ sensitive health information. To give you some practical advice, let’s summarize the most action-packed directions from HIPAA that you should apply during the health app development process.

Limit information access in the app

The first security rule of thumb is to check who can access PHI. Make sure that only authorized users (and third-party HIPAA-compliant software) have access control over the app’s data:

  • Bio authentication
  • 2-factor authentication
  • Automatic log-off when the user is inactive

It also helps to have distinct user roles with specific access rights to different app features. For instance, not everybody on the provider’s side might need access to consumer health information all the time.

Encrypt all patient data

Again, HIPAA doesn’t recommend any particular encryption and decryption standards, but we prefer to use open-source, well-recommended AES 256-bit encryption, OpenPGP, and S/MIME.

To remain compliant with HIPAA, all PHI-related data must be encrypted at rest and in sync. Such data encryption guarantees data transmission security during data transfer and prevents hacks.

encrypting and securing patient data

Implement an audit mechanism

You should be able to track down who exactly is using the app and what actions these users are taking. In essence, such audit controls call for unique user identification.

Ensure data integrity

PHI should be unavailable for unauthorized changes. Blockchain technology is really priceless when it comes to preserving patients’ data integrity. Consider moving EHR (electronic health records) or EMR (electronic medical records) to a blockchain to develop a HIPAA-compliant app that’s incredibly resistant to hacks.

You May Also be Interested: How to Make a Blockchain Application 

Transfer PHI using secure connections and protocols

To make patient data resistant to breaches, apart from merely encrypting it, you also need to send it using a secure https connection and SSL/TLS. If anything, just check that your HIPAA-compliant app developers will use these technologies when building a HIPAA-compliant mobile app.

Limit the amount of data to the necessary minimum

Ensure that you are only gathering the information that will impact your app’s performance and make it more useful for your patients. We also recommend that you avoid caching PHI and storing users’ geolocation data (other than state-level).

Also Read: How to create an on-demand pediatric app

Remove PHI from notifications and emails

Note that PHI may be easily compromised when transferred via push notifications and emails on mobile devices. The same goes for text messages and virtually any outside-the-app messaging.

messaging safely using HIPAA compliance

Have options for patient data backup and removal

HIPAA is also very particular about storing individually identifiable health information. If you store data in the cloud (e.g., Google Cloud or AWS), you absolutely have to back it up.

At the same time, to create a HIPAA-compliant app adhering to all standards, you should allow patients to wipe their personal information entirely from the system, including remote removal of PHI data (e.g., health plans) from a lost mobile device.

Enact privacy policy

This should probably be the first on the list. Still, please remember that your customers will appreciate a transparent privacy policy that explains how you treat their health data and manage access controls.

The privacy policy also goes hand in hand with establishing a long-term strategy for monitoring all HIPAA-related aspects of your health app.

5 Steps to Make an App HIPAA-Compliant

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of enabling HIPAA compliance in your healthcare application whether you’re building a chatbot or a doctor’s appointment app. When building a HIPAA compliant app, it’s essential to involve healthcare professionals in the process, as their insights can help ensure the application meets both regulatory and practical needs in a healthcare setting.

Let’s review all necessary steps, and if you feel like something is missing, never hesitate to reach out and ask. Here’s how to make a custom developed app HIPAA-compliant.

Here’s the list of all steps at a glance:

  • Step 1. Choose and implement HIPAA-as-a-service backend
  • Step 2. Separate PHI from other app data
  • Step 3. Encrypt throughout
  • Step 4. Run audit and penetration tests
  • Step 5. Implement long-term strategy with logging

HIPAA mobile app development

Step 1. Choose and implement HIPAA-as-a-service backend

As you know, these days, apps don’t exist in a vacuum, and there’s always some web app they connect to. Of course, healthcare apps are not an exception, and cloud services they connect to need to be HIPAA-compliant as well.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to choose from: Every major cloud provider offers a backend that includes HIPAA compliance out-of-the-box. Some of the most reliable players that come to mind include:

  • Truevault
  • AWS
  • Google Compute Engine
  • Aptible
  • Datica

Step 2. Separate PHI from other app data

It’s recommended that you keep all patients’ health data in a separate database when building a HIPAA-compliant application. That way, you won’t have to constantly encrypt and decrypt every byte of the app, which may sometimes slow down its performance.

hipaa compliant app development banner 2

Step 3. Encrypt throughout

We already mentioned that, but you should know that encryption has to become an integral part of your health app. Data should be encrypted while at rest (locally on smartphones and in the cloud) and in transit, as it travels between apps and servers.

That’s also the step where you go through all the items listed in the checklist above.

Step 4. Run audit and penetration tests

It’s a good practice to hire out testing to an external company that can audit your app developers’ work by running all sorts of tests.

Related: How to implement a DevOps plan

Step 5. Implement long-term strategy with logging

Finally, you’ll need to set up procedures for continuous monitoring of HIPAA issues because your app will keep evolving, and so should its security. You’ll need to track PHI access, detect security issues, regularly reevaluate the effectiveness of security measures, and assess potential risks to compromising e-PHI.

HIPAA Compliance during covid 19

Overall, these 5 steps cover how you make an app HIPAA compliant.

Also Read: How to build a healthcare chatbot

Features of HIPAA-Compliant Software

To build HIPAA compliant apps, it’s crucial to prioritize data protection measures that safeguard user data from breaches and misuse. But what are the common properties often found in healthcare software that’s optimized for HIPAA? Let’s delve into these key features:


All PHI data should be fully encrypted using the industry’s best practices. This applies whether the data is at rest (stored on cloud or local servers) or in transit (when syncing between applications). It’s not enough to just encrypt; the encryption standards used should be top-notch and up-to-date with industry norms.

Shareable data format

Patient data must comply with HL7/FHIR data standards. This compliance ensures streamlined sharing of patient info between providers, enhancing collaboration and improving patient outcomes. An app that meets these standards is an asset in today’s interconnected healthcare landscape.

Diving into the world of healthcare technology, our latest blog post sheds light on the intricacies and advantages of SMART on FHIR app development, guiding you through each step to ensure your project’s success.

Emergency access

HIPAA-compliant applications must include an option for emergency access. This feature activates in a crisis, allowing providers to lock or export patient data quickly. It’s a vital component of any healthcare app, providing a safety net for unforeseen circumstances.

Authentication mechanisms

The software also needs to include proper authorization mechanisms. These mechanisms prevent any party not registered in the system from accessing PHI. A robust authentication system is the first line of defense against unauthorized data access.

Data anonymization

Last but not least, a health app developed in line with HIPAA rules makes it easy to strip PHI and make obfuscated medical data available for research, clinical trials, and other similar purposes. This functionality is a game-changer in the world of medical research, as it allows for comprehensive data analysis without compromising patient privacy.


The Office for Civil Rights has relaxed the HIPAA requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic for all covered healthcare providers who are provisioning telehealth services to patients. This certainly simplifies HIPAA-compliant mobile app development to an extent.

The organization will not penalize a healthcare provider using non-HIPAA-compliant telemedicine tools for addressing their patients’ needs in good faith. However, health insurance companies are not covered and need to continue complying with all HIPAA regulations while providing insurance coverage.

Quick facts about HIPAA and COVID-19:

  • No expiration date until a special statement is issued by OCR
  • Covers Medicare, Medicaid, and all other patients
  • Includes HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules

OCR Tools for HIPAA Compliance

OCR, in partnership with FTC, the HHS Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), built a couple of online tools to help health app developers verify what laws and regulations may apply to their solutions.

hipaa tools for compliance explaining hipaa compliant app development

Please check out these tools when in doubt about HIPAA application:

As you embark on the journey to make a HIPAA compliant app, these tools can serve as critical resources. They offer guidance and assistance every step of the way in navigating the complex landscape of regulations and requirements.

By leveraging these tools, not only will you be ensuring that your app is in line with HIPAA regulations, but you will also be taking an important step towards building trust with your users, who can rest assured knowing that their sensitive health information is protected and handled with utmost care.

How Much Does it Cost to Build a HIPAA-Compliant App?

It’s really hard to put a price tag on app development costs, but especially so when developing a HIPAA-compliant app from scratch as all mhealth apps have different scopes, and therefore HIPAA application development budgets vary accordingly. For example, we can build HIPAA-compliant apps ranging from $60,000 to $190,000. It’s critical to partner with an experienced HIPAA-compliant mobile app development company to keep the cost of implementing these requirements under control.

The healthcare industry-wide HIPAA compliance costs are close to $8.3 billion a year, with each physician spending around $35,000 per year for keeping health information technology secure.

Related (Other blogs about apps that require HIPAA Compliance):

We’ve discovered that it’s safer to err on the side of caution and implement HIPAA-related technologies even when we’re building an MVP that doesn’t use PHI. Eventually, HIPAA will become a requirement, and so it’s better when it’s built into the app’s architecture from the very beginning.

hipaa app development cost considerations

If you decide to go with an out-of-the-box HIPAA-as-a-Service option, the magic number will be around $2,000 per month. Hold on, there’s still good news! If you’re considering building a telehealth solution, that is. We’ve partnered with Agora.io to offer unprecedented 90% off pricing to cover your HIPAA compliance expenses on the telehealth front. You can learn more about this initiative here.

How Much Does HIPAA Ignorance Cost?

If you decide to build a HIPAA-compliant app ignoring some of the regulatory requirements, that may turn out a major blow to your budget. Building HIPAA compliant apps is not just a legal obligation, but it’s also a measure of credibility and trustworthiness in the healthcare industry. For exemplary purposes, we can discuss a couple of cases that demonstrate the likely expenses if you decide that it’s not worth it to make a mobile app HIPAA-compliant.

Related: App Development Costs: The Complete Breakdown

Aetna Life Insurance Company

The company had to settle for a $1,000,000 fine with OCR, following 3 data breaches, only one of which had to do with digital malpractice: they let Google and other search engines index health plan-related documents.

Related: Insurance App Development Guide

Metropolitan Community Health Services

The nonprofit health center serves over 3000 patients a year and has agreed to pay $20,000 for not complying with the HIPAA Security Rule. OCR took into consideration MCHS’s orientation towards the underserved population in rural North Carolina. Hence, the manageable (but still unpleasant) penalty.

The average fine for breaking HIPAA compliance rules and regulations during mobile app development HIPAA compliance in 2020 was around $940,000. In 2023, the average fine for violating HIPAA compliance rules and regulations during mobile app development soared to a little over $2,000,000, highlighting the growing seriousness of this issue in the healthcare industry.

The development of HIPAA compliant mobile apps must always prioritize patient data security to avoid costly penalties and reputational damage.

HIPAA fine settlements 2008 to 2020

Our Experience in HIPAA-Compliant App Development

For Topflight, being a HIPAA-compliant app development company, it’s probably easier to list the apps that didn’t require us to implement HIPAA because, for the 99% of healthcare applications we build, web and mobile app development and HIPAA compliance go side by side. Therefore, complying with the HIPAA rules is part of our daily routine.

So it’s only when we build fitness solutions like a mobile application Habitap or Walker Tracker that we don’t need to focus on HIPAA — simply because these apps need no health data to operate. Things like calories burned, steps taken, or distance covered do not comprise health data.

Some examples of HIPAA-compliant platforms we built include Medable and Smarter Symptom. Check out our portfolio for more of our work. Reach out whether you have questions about HIPAA-compliant video conferencing SDKs, how long it will take to build your app, or if you’re looking for help with strategy, design, and HIPAA-compliant app development.

Whether you’re a healthcare provider, business associate, or belong to covered entities, we’ll be happy to assist and help you make your app HIPAA compliant while working on your software development project.

Related Articles:

  1. A Guide to Development a Medical Website
  2. How to Start a Healthcare Startup
  3. Guide to Developing a Medical IoT Application
  4. Mental Health Application Development
  5. A Definitive Guide to Telemedicine Development
  6. Blockchain in Healthcare Application
  7. How to Create a Medication Reminder Application
  8. Guide to Building an On Demand Pediatrics Application
  9. Virtual Nurse App Development Guide
  10. The Best Patient Scheduling Softwares Untangled

[This blog was originally published on 11/4/2020, and has been updated for more recent data]

Frequently Asked Questions


Does a mental health application need to comply with HIPAA?

Yes. In addition, a patient’s written consent is required in case psychotherapy notes need to be shared.

Is HIPAA required only for telemedicine apps?

For all telemedicine and other healthcare software that handle PHI on behalf of covered entities or business associates.

What is the best tactic for speeding up HIPAA-compliant application development without sacrificing its HIPAA compliance?

Use one of the available HIPAA-as-a-Service solutions from well-known vendors like Google, AWS, or Microsoft. That will noticeably boost the HIPAA-compliant application development process.

Can I create a HIPAA-compliant app using only off-the-shelf solutions with minimal custom coding?

Yes. Reach out to ask what tools we can recommend.

Konstantin Kalinin

Head of Content
Konstantin has worked with mobile apps since 2005 (pre-iPhone era). Helping startups and Fortune 100 companies deliver innovative apps while wearing multiple hats (consultant, delivery director, mobile agency owner, and app analyst), Konstantin has developed a deep appreciation of mobile and web technologies. He’s happy to share his knowledge with Topflight partners.
Learn how to build winning apps.

Privacy Policy: We hate spam and promise to keep your email address safe

Copy link