Text messaging is becoming more popular in many hospitals. Instead of paging, clinical staff may use third-party messaging apps on smartphones and tablets to contact other doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, this growing practice doesn’t come without risks. 

Security is one big concern with text messaging in hospitals. Standard consumer apps don’t contain strong enough protections for patients’ protected health information (PHI), and any breaches could put these details into the wrong hands.

Another issue involves time-sensitive matters. When sending a clinician a text about a patient’s condition through a personal mobile device, there’s no guarantee the message will stand out. So it could get buried among other messages – and it might not even be read at all.

Significant problems

Other problems abound regarding the use of text messaging on personal devices to communicate with doctors and nurses about patient care.

Healthcare communication company Spok just released a list of the six biggest issues that arise when allowing clinical staff to text message each other using regular consumer apps and programs:

  1. The apps can’t integrate with a hospital’s information sources. There’s no way for Apple’s iMessage or other common texting apps to pull information from a hospital’s internal network such as on-call schedules and staff directories. So this means staff have no way of accessing this information easily, which could lead to critical delays in covering shifts and caring for patients.
  2. Texting apps aren’t able to work with clinical systems to send patient care alerts to doctors and nurses. Clinical staff can’t use third-party consumer apps to send nurse call alerts and other important messages about a patient’s care from hospital monitors and systems. They can only relay the message in words, with no way of noting its importance.
  3. Messages of all types are mixed together in app inboxes. There’s no way for a doctor or nurse to distinguish a message about a shift change from a text about dinner plans. Every message goes into the same inbox, with the same priority, and if a staff member misses the initial alert, the person may not realize a message was sent.
  4. There’s no way to protect regular text messages from data breaches. Text messages on consumer apps aren’t sent with encryption, and there’s no way to limit access to the apps on a smartphone or tablet while they’re in use. So it’s relatively easy for PHI to be compromised if it’s ever sent via a regular text message.
  5. Standard text messages aren’t easily traceable for auditing purposes. If information about a patient’s procedure or hospital stay is communicated via text message, it may not be easy to retrieve that information when auditing or investigating adverse events. These details could be needed to discover where a communication breakdown occurred in cases of medical error. And without having the messages readily available as proof, it may be more difficult to resolve the situation.
  6. Ringtone and notification abilities are limited for consumer texting apps. While consumer apps allow users to assign a tone for text messages, few take it a step further with the ability to use different sounds for different types of messages. This makes it even harder for clinicians to determine whether a message is related to patient care or if it’s about something personal.

Alternative for texting

These limitations may make hospitals want to outright ban the use of text messaging for communication among clinical staff – and this may be a good idea to protect your facility in the short term.

But there’s a better alternative available: secure text messaging apps designed specifically for healthcare professionals. These apps offer all the perks missing from standard consumer text messaging apps, including the ability to:

  • integrate messages with a hospital’s electronic health records (EHR) system and alarm systems
  • use different alert sounds for texts based on priority
  • pull information about scheduling directly from the hospital’s internal network
  • transmit messages using encryption
  • create PINs so the app isn’t always accessible when the device is in use, and
  • track when messages were sent, delivered and answered for a clear audit trail.

If your clinicians have started using third-party texting apps to communicate with each other about patient care, it may be a good idea to implement a secure text messaging system so your facility can avoid the biggest risks while still offering staff the convenience of texting.

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