When is an “electronic signature” legally appropriate in the medical context?
More than one would think. Electronic signatures are appropriate under HIPAA and other federal and state laws, and they are enforceable under California’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (Civil Code section 1633.1 et seq, “UETA”). There are some cautions, though. Digital signatures on custodian affidavit/declaration forms, consents to treatment, and generally all document where a patient must sign are permissible and legally enforceable.
Electronic & Digital Signatures.
There is a distinction between an “electronic” and a “digital” signature. Federal law and many state laws allow electronic signatures on some documents. Electronic signatures can be a picture of a signature, an agreed-upon string of characters, a symbol, a signature typed into a signature block in an ¬electronic form, and other personal non-encrypted, agreed-upon identifiers. A digital signature is an encrypted “hash” or tag that is registered to an individual and ¬accompanies transmission of electronic data or forms signed via computer. They are much more reliable than electronic signatures because they allow recipients to validate senders and prevent repudiation at a later date.
California Law: the UETA
California law provides in the UETA: “(a) A record or signature may not be denied legal effect of enforceability solely because it is in electronic form. (b) A contract may not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because an electronic record was used in its formation (c)If a law requires a record to be in writing, an electronic record satisfies the law. (d) If a law requires a signature, an electronic signature satisfies the law.”
What is an electronic signature? The language of the statute is simple: an electronic signature satisfies the law. Typically, if the person “signing” types his name on an email, formatted screen or word processing document, that will suffice as a signature. The document with the signature should be reliable: sent from the signers email, or delivered by him or her in some way.
As in all contracts, the surrounding circumstances are important. In a recent California Court of Appeals case, (JBB Investment Partners v. B. Thomas Fair), the court looked at the actions surrounding a parties alleged electronic signature to a contract. The Court determined that while the party had printed his name in an electronic communication, other communications had determined that there had not been “a meeting of the minds,” or a final agreement as to terms.
Even with this this cautionary case, most of the time electronic signatures will be acceptable for medical records. If the party signing gives indications of some doubt about what is being signed, you might want to get the document signed in your facility.