Text messaging is fully integrated into millions of people's lives and is a convenient, less obtrusive alternative to the phone call. With 97% of Americans using their phones to text, many physicians are wondering how to incorporate text message communication into their practices.
Incorporating text messaging into your operations can improve efficiency and free up office personnel to accomplish more involved tasks, but what kind of legal issues should you consider? What kind of steps should you take prior to texting patients?
Here's how your practice can start text messaging patients while avoiding common pitfalls.
What are Some Common Uses for Text Messaging?
Text messages work best for fairly generic reminders. For example, many practices use text message reminders of upcoming appointments and ask the patient to respond (with "OK" or something similar) to confirm the appointment.
The patient may respond differently to reschedule the appointment if necessary.
Text messages can be used to remind patients to schedule their annual flu vaccine or check-up, or to communicate important information in unusual situations.
For example, if your practice has to close due to, say, a severe snowstorm, a mass text can inform patients of this fact and prevent them from venturing out.
Obtaining and Recording Consent from Patients
Having a patient's mobile number is not the same as having consent to send them text messages.
You need to get explicit consent and have it recorded by, for example, having the patient sign a form that explains what text messaging is used for and that provides the number the patient wants you to use for text messaging.
It's also vital that patients know to inform you if their phone number should change so text messages reach the correct person. When your intake personnel collect demographic information, they can ensure that your practice has the correct mobile number for text messaging.
Patients must also understand that they are responsible for the charges incurred for receiving texts under their mobile plan.
What Patients Should Know About Your Text Messaging
Patients also need to understand the limitations on text messaging within your practice. For example, if it is only used for appointment reminders and confirmation, they should know that responding to these messages with medical or other questions will not be received by the personnel capable of answering those questions.
Patients should understand what to do if they need medical attention during or outside of your practice hours. Most practices that use text messaging for patients send them through their electronic health record (EHR) system so that the actual number from which the messages originate are not shown.
Creating a Defined Text Policy to Avoid HIPAA Problems
If your practice allows text messaging to and from clinicians regarding anything that could be considered personal health information (PHI), it's vital that you have safeguards in place to prevent HIPAA violations.
In fact, it's a good idea to have legal counsel look over your entire text messaging policy to ensure you have thought of everything and that the policy is watertight with respect to privacy and confidentiality.
Many practices avoid using text messages to communicate specific health information and stick to using it for administrative functions like appointment reminders in order to avoid problems with HIPAA.
Automating Text Messaging with Your EHR Software
A text messaging program that is administered by your EHR is generally your most efficient option. It can be set up to automatically send out appointment reminders at a specified time interval before the appointment and can be made to automatically confirm appointments in your system upon receiving confirmation from a patient.
Furthermore, you can use your EHR to distribute mass notifications, like in advance of a flu shot clinic, or when your practice hours change.
Text messages can be a great way to communicate with patients, but they're far more convenient and efficient if they're managed by the EHR system rather than being administered by an individual.
Are you using text messaging at your practice? Let us know in the comments if you've implemented text message reminders or notifications at your practice and what you did to make it successful.