Standard Text Messaging for Smartphones Not HIPAA Compliant



Doctors were the first to begin using pagers and, along with drug dealers, appear to be the last to give them up. But we really need to get rid of them.

Sadly, for the foreseeable future, we will need a pager replacement, but, in the longer term, I’m hopeful that we can:

  1. Reduce the frequency of electronic interruptions—all forms of interruptions—and the adverse effects that reliably accompany them, and
  2. Ensure that each interruption has value—that is, reduce or eliminate the many low value and non-urgent messages we all get (e.g. the ones informing you of a lab result you’ve already seen).

Death to the Pager

I can’t imagine anyone who will be more pleased than I will if pagers go the way of now rare hospital-wide PA announcements. Some hospitals have eliminated these announcements entirely, and even critical messages like “code blue” announcements are sent directly to each responder via a pager or other personal device.

Around the time the first iPhone was born, hospital signs banning cell phones began coming down. It seems the fear that they would disrupt hospital electronics, such as telemetry and other monitoring devices, has proven largely unfounded (though, along with things like computer keyboards and stethoscopes, pagers and cell phones can serve as dangerous repositories of bacteria).

Now nearly everyone, from staff to patients, keeps a cell phone with them while in the hospital. I think that is the most important step toward getting rid of pagers. Many doctors already are using the standard text messaging apps that come with the phone to communicate with one another efficiently.

I would love to see a feature that I don’t think any vendor offers yet. It would be great if all messages the sender hasn’t marked “stat” or “urgent” first went to a queue in the EHR rather than immediately interrupting the recipient.

“Regular” Texting Won’t Cut It

Unfortunately, the standard text messaging that comes with every smartphone is not HIPAA compliant. Though I certainly don’t know how anyone would do it, it is apparently too easy for another person to intercept the message. So, if you’re texting information related to your clinical work, you need to make sure it doesn’t include anything that could be considered protected health information. It isn’t enough just to leave the patient’s name off the message. If you’re in the habit of regularly texting doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel about patient care, you are at high risk of violating HIPAA, even if you try hard to avoid it.

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