Last University employees switch to Gmail

About 18,000 AHC employees had to wait due to patient privacy concerns.

by Katelyn Faulks

The University of Minnesota is almost done transferring its last employees from Gophermail to Gmail, a relief for many staff members.

In 2011, the University adopted Gmail for employee and student use, but patient privacy concerns forced thousands of Academic Health Center employees to forgo the switch.

Before, Google wouldn’t sign the contract requiring them to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which sets security standards to protect patient data.

Last September, Google offered to sign a Business Associate Agreement showing its compliance with HIPAA regulations. University Vice President and Chief Information Officer Scott Studham said transferring the accounts from the University’s control to Google’s outside servers won’t pose privacy problems.

“The BAA was the only roadblock for us moving the health care component … to Google,” he said. “[It was] just a legal matter — not a technology issue.”

Under the contract, Google has to inform the University of any data breaches. If the University terminates its contract with Google, the company has to destroy any patient data information it has accumulated.

AHC assistant director of public relations Justin Paquette said it’s important Google is legally bound to keep patient data secure, since doctors, nurses and other employees will sometimes trade information through email.

Now that the University and Google have signed the contract, he said, employees are eager to make the switch because Gmail is more efficient, streamlined and easy-to-use.

“There’s been some envy in the AHC to get into that Gmail system,” Paquette said.

The transition will begin in December, Studham said, and likely last until next summer.

“About 18,000 emails have to be switched,” Studham said. “[It’s] not a small project.”

For the AHC, the University has to switch about 9,000 faculty and staff emails. The rest of the emails include others that handle patient data outside the AHC, such as trainers in University athletics.

The 2011 switch saved the University $3 million in hardware costs, Studham said. Once the remaining accounts change over, the University could save another $500,000, he said.

Chief Health Information Compliance Officer Lori Ketola said the new system will be faster and smoother for employees. The lack of a universal email server has made it difficult for some employees to set up meetings, for example.

“With everyone on the same system, there won’t be issues trying to map different systems for one another, and it will help [to sync] calendars,” she said.

Gophermail was a fragile system, prone to occasional outages over the years, AHC associate Vice President and Chief of Staff Terry Bock said.

“It’s obviously served us well,” he said. “It’s now at the end of its useful life; it’s time to move on.”