How Mobile Text Messaging is Changing Healthcare

Healthcare text messaging is on the rise, as physicians and patients turn to secure text messaging to stay connected throughout the care and recovery process. As early as 2014, more than half of physicians reported exchanging secure messages, doubling the rate from the prior year.

Texting isn’t limited just to the patient and provider – physicians are also leaning on the technology to exchange messages with one another. Widespread adoption in society and an increasing drive for convenience in healthcare has helped the practice take root, says Mary Clare Lingel, vice president of operations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Applications and Benefits of Healthcare Text Messaging

Turning to texting unlocks applications and better outcomes, impacting several areas:

Patient Communication
Physicians with packed schedules are instantly more accessible to their patients, able to connect via text message for a few minutes. For example, Mel Viney, MD, is combating the opioid crisis in the emergency room at Artesian Valley Health System. Viney sometimes uses a Suboxone prescription to support recovering addicts – a sensitive treatment designed to eventually detox the patient. Through secure text messaging, Viney can regularly check in with his patients, sometimes as much as three times daily.

Operations can also be streamlined, texting reminders to patients for upcoming appointments. Some organizations also allow patients to confirm, cancel or ask to reschedule appointments through text message.

Some text messaging platforms can direct messages to the right party, sending messages about appointment times to front desk staff, and clinical questions to physicians or nurses.

And, text messaging also allows healthcare providers to follow up with patients for questions on healthcare handouts.

Prescription Dosage
Adjusting prescription dosage along the way, especially with something like Suboxone that is used to suppress opioid addiction symptoms, is made easier to administer when physicians can text patients to make sure they’re staying on top of their dosage. And, if something goes wrong, patients can quickly alert their physicians.

Text messaging interventions (TMIs) have shown strong positive evidence for how they can influence outcomes across a variety of health issues, including physical activity, weight loss, smoking cessation and chronic disease self-management. TMIs offer a lower cost option to engage many people, but with some degree of personalization, interactive nature and message repetition.

Healthy Behaviors
Patients can also receive individualized coaching with reminders or actions for daily step goals, physical activity plans, sun safety or oral health. And, text messages can remind patients about life-saving screenings, like colorectal, breast or cervical cancer screenings.

Secure Messaging can be a Challenge

As with any new technology, security can pose a concern. And in the healthcare sector, these security risks can come with serious consequences.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outlines guidelines for how Protected Health Information (PHI) should be communicated. For healthcare organizations and other included entities, failure to comply can incur financial sanctions or legal action for avoidable breaches of PHI. According to HIPPA, this includes unsecured text message channels, because unencrypted SMS messages can be intercepted, copied or accessed on a lost or stolen device. However, with a secure text messaging app that enables encrypted PHI, this practice is compliant. In other words, the consumer-ready texting app isn’t going to cut it here – providers and their patients must download a secure app and exchange messages through the platform.

Patient Risk
Patients aren’t always aware of all the information being sent via text message regarding their care, as providers sometimes use this technology as well to share patient information. And sometimes, that information contains highly sensitive information like name, health plan beneficiary number, social security number and photographs.

Message Content
Protected health information (PHI) is anything that is personally identifiable relating to the individuals’ health (mental or physical) or payments, and can’t be edited easily via text message, a HIPPA requirement. Organizations need to have clear policies in place to prevent messaging that exposes the organization to legal consequences.

Storing and Deleting Messages
Storage can also pose a risk, as text messages can be retained for undefined times. And, text messages are stored on the mobile device, workstation, or the wireless carrier’s server. Establish a standard for how long messages are retained.

Finally, consider these healthcare text messaging best practices:

  • Password protect devices to protect any unauthorized access, devices and messaging apps should be password protected.
  • Used encrypted software when possible.
  • Obtain written consent before communicating via text.
  • Verify phone numbers before communicating via text.
  • If a patient sends a text message with PHI, create a new message and ask them to call you.
  • Keep the tone in the message professional.
  • Establish clear expectations around response times.
  • The low cost, prolific nature of texting makes it an easy platform to better connect providers and patients. When organizations approach the service thoughtfully and with all implications and risks in mind, they can establish a practice that may increase both patient satisfaction and patient outcomes with more connected care.

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