Siemens AG's healthcare technology unit Monday plans to introduce a secure messaging system designed to ensure that electronic communications between patients and their doctors and between physicians and hospitals comply with data privacy laws.Sue Merk, director of community innovations at Erlangen, Germany-based Siemens Medical Solutions, said the new system supports the Advanced Encryption Standard and is built around technology from Sigaba Corp., a subsidiary of Secure Data In Motion Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.The software can scale from small medical practices to the largest hospitals, Merk said. It uses a rules-based engine to check e-mail and instant messages for any personally identifiable information about patients, in keeping with the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).Messages that have such data are then encrypted. End users can access encrypted e-mail by typing in a user name and password, which activates a Sigaba-developed secure key server. The system can also be beefed up to require the use of biometric identifiers such as thumbprints, Merk said.Alegent Health, an Omaha-based nonprofit healthcare company that operates eight hospitals and 100 medical clinics, has signed on to use the new messaging system. Ken Lawonn, vice president of IT at Alegent, said the company views e-mail as an effective way to do business but also needs to ensure that it complies with HIPAA.Alegent has 5,000 e-mail accounts, and Lawonn said it plans to run all external messages through the Siemens software. He added that he's also looking to use the system to support direct forms of communication, including e-mail billing and sending medical records to patients.Alegent installed a small HP\/Compaq server to run the software and paid an upfront fee of about US$14,000. Siemens will bill Alegent on a per-message basis under an application service provider contract, Merk said. Doctors who practice at Alegent facilities pay $10 per month for unlimited access to the messaging system via a PC plug-in.Lawonn said Alegent employees would have to send more than 1 million messages each year -- a total that isn't realistically possible now - before the company would need to consider buying the Siemens software outright.