The use of mobile SMS texting has become pervasive across healthcare organizations. It’s simple-to-use, virtually everyone has access to it, and the technology has facilitated quick and efficient communication among providers which is essential for patient care.
But the use of SMS also comes with a lot of challenges and drawbacks as shared by many providers across different care settings. We’ve provided a rundown of the top reasons for moving away from SMS for clinical communication among providers.
The use of SMS for texting patient information among members of the healthcare team is not HIPAA compliant. SMS does not provide required technical safeguards such as automatic logoff, data encryption, user authentication, and audit controls. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) also clarified in its memo that healthcare organizations can text patient information only if a secure platform is used.
Exposure to data breaches
SMS does not provide security features such as data encryption or user login. So messages can be easily hacked and read, and someone who gets a hold of a provider’s phone can readily access all conversations and files (patient photos, lab results, and more) stored on his phone. Furthermore, healthcare organizations cannot take any action to mitigate the security risks of SMS usage by employees. For instance, when a provider loses her mobile phone, the healthcare organization has no way of remotely deleting the data stored on her device. This can be a huge liability for the organization.
No data trail or backup
When employees leave an organization, all of the patient data stored on their phone walks out the door with them. The organization has no method of accessing the valuable data and context which can result in disruptions or errors in care delivery. Also, if an employee loses her phone, all of the data is lost since there’s typically no data backup that the organization can access.
Group texting can be painful
Providers commonly use group conversations on SMS to communicate and share patient information. But for many, things get challenging since providers come and go, and care teams change over time. When a new person joins the team, you can’t add him to an existing SMS thread; so you create a brand new thread while the old messages are sitting in a different thread. When someone leaves, you again need to start a new thread since the removed user would otherwise have access to all messages going forward. Not only that, SMS is typically limited to 20-25 participants per thread, so you can’t share updates easily with your entire department or facility.
Cryptic messages & errors
We’ve heard providers go to great lengths to keep their SMS communication HIPAA compliant by not mentioning the patient’s name, room number, or other identifiers. But patient files such as lab results and x-rays are commonly shared even though this would be considered PHI. Providers have also shared about the errors resulting from speaking in code and difficulties resulting from not being able to freely discuss a patient case. What if a provider receiving a message has 3 patients with the initials “JP” and the wrong medications are provided to a patient as a result?
No personal & work boundaries
When providers use SMS for work-related communication, it can get confusing and chaotic to have all of their personal and work messages in one place. What if they accidentally respond to the wrong conversation thread and send a patient’s lab results to a friend? Or what if he sends his personal photos in a work thread about a patient case? Providers also do not have control over when they receive notifications so they’re not interrupted during certain times such as evenings and weekends.
These are just some of the drawbacks and limitations of using SMS for clinical communication.
While SMS is simple-to-use, convenient, and can bring a number of benefits, the technology was never designed to support the needs of healthcare professionals (nor is it HIPAA compliant). If you haven’t already, we encourage you to check out a secure messaging solution that combines the ease-of-use and advantages of SMS with the purpose-built features that can help healthcare providers communicate more efficiently.