Everyone, it seems, texts these days—in fact, 81 percent of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center study, do so on a regular basis. What’s more, people are doing more than just exchanging greetings via text, with many doing everything from sending and receiving money to refilling prescriptions through SMS. Given this nationwide fondness for texting, it’s only logical that patients would want to be able to connect with their health care providers in the same way—but confusion remains when it comes to how providers can protect patient privacy and keep in compliance with HIPAA when communicating this way. To that end, as Fierce Healthcare first reported, the American Medical Association (AMA) has begun to consider adopting formal guidelines for patient-provider texting. “Patients frequently want to receive relevant details in the speediest and tersest ways possible: namely, e-mails and texts,” contributor Robert Nagler Miller writes in a piece for the AMA Wire blog.
Miller notes that providers, too, tend to appreciate the brevity of text messages for communication, pointing to a 2013 study of surgical residents that revealed they “preferred communicating with each other about patient-care matters through texts.” He also offers a few simple tips for providers seeking to use texts to connect with patients. First, providers should clearly convey to patients that there are privacy issues involved when it comes to texting about health information. “You and your patients may both believe that your texts are secure, but there is never an absolute certainty of such protection, as recent cases of hacking remind us,” Miller explains. Also crucial: setting boundaries and guidelines regarding when patients can expect responses, and when an in-person visit, rather than “prolonged back-and-forth texting,” might be more appropriate. Miller also reminds providers to keep the tone of messages professional (“refrain from making jokes), work to ensure accuracy, leave out identifying information, and keep records of text exchanges.
The AMA will discuss provider-patient texting further at a June meeting of its House of Delegates, with members set to vote on whether to expand its guidelines on e-mail communication between patients and providers to include text messaging. In the meantime, Miller encourages providers to consult their legal counsel and IT staff about HIPAA matters and texting best practices before trading numbers with patients.