Healthcare News & Insights

Secure messaging: Clear win for health care

Smart phones make life easier for hospital providers, but their use isn’t permitted when it comes to secure messaging for patient care orders. Despite this, secure messaging still provides key advantages for healthcare organizations as detailed in this guest post by Linda Fischer, senior director of product solutions for a software solutions and services provider.


Back in the “good old days,” before everyone over the age of 8 had a personal smartphone device, doctor-to-doctor communication wasn’t as simple as picking up one’s cell phone, texting a few words and hitting send. In fact, usually you had to exercise a fair amount of patience and suffer through an often-agonizing game of phone tag before connecting with the other doctor.

Practices attempted to make the process a little easier by offering doctors and staff a secret “backline” that would bypass the main receptionist or after-hours answering service. Assuming the doctor was in his or her office, you could often connect in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, if the doctor was away from the office, you might have to jump through multiple hoops to track him or her down. Even with the introduction of pagers, the whole exercise could take several hours – or even days.

Today, thanks to smartphones, most of us are a simple text or phone call away, virtually any time, day or night. While 24×7 access can sometimes be a curse, in health care the smartphone has helped to advance communications between care team members and made it easier to collaborate and share information.

In health care, secure messaging is key

Unfortunately, despite their wonderful convenience, most smartphones don’t meet Joint Commission security requirements. In fact, in a December 2016 announcement, the Joint Commission recommended that “all healthcare organizations should have policies prohibiting the use of unsecured text messaging … from a personal mobile device — for communicating protected health information.”

To leverage the convenience of text messaging within health care and remain compliant with patient safety and privacy regulations, numerous companies now offer messaging tools that meet HIPAA and HITECH requirements and include built-in technology for authentication, encryption and message auditing. Currently the Joint Commission doesn’t permit the use of secure messaging for patient care orders, but secure messaging still provides key advantages for healthcare organizations.

For example:

  • Better care coordination – Secure messaging facilitates collaboration and information sharing among care team members so that treatment decisions can be made in real-time. For example, a nurse may need to connect with a physician quickly after receiving a lab result that indicates a critical abnormal result. The attending nurse can immediately notify the physician via secure message to advise him or her of the situation. Because the nurse and physician are able to connect right away, patient care is better coordinated and appropriate treatment can be initiated within minutes of the receipt of the abnormal lab result. Secure messaging can similarly enhance care coordination during transitions of care because physicians and clinical staff are able to quickly and securely communicate key patient events to all of a patient’s caregivers.
  • Faster decision making – With secure messaging, clinicians can send not only text messages, but also images, reports, photos and other attachments. If a physician requires a quick consult with a specialist, the key clinical documents can be easily and securely shared. Critical care decisions can thus be made faster and appropriate treatment can be initiated sooner.
  • Enhanced medication management – Delivering the right medications to the right patient at the right time is critical for safe and effective health outcomes. Secure messaging enhances the medication management process, especially when urgent medication changes may be required. For example, a nurse can notify an on-call physician of a critical change in a patient’s health status using secure messaging. The physician can be updated on all the vital details and take appropriate action to initiate any modifications to the patient’s treatment.
  • Reduction in errors – Communication errors aren’t uncommon when messages are delivered verbally, either over the phone or in person. With secure messaging, both parties have an easy-to-access record of the communication, minimizing the risk of any misinterpretation of a patient’s current status or of treatment directives – and increasing the likelihood of safe and effective outcomes.

Secure communication reduces lengths of stay

In a study conducted by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, patients whose hospital care providers used mobile secure text-messaging as a means of communication had shorter lengths-of-stay compared to patients whose providers used the standard paging system to communicate. The study’s authors concluded that “secure text messaging may help to improve communication among providers leading to more efficient care coordination and allowing patients to leave the hospital sooner.”

The 12-month study included approximately 11,500 patients and found that patients whose providers used secure text messaging left the hospital .77 days sooner, equivalent to about a 14% reduction in their overall hospital stay. Researchers also found no difference in readmission rates between the intervention and control sites, suggesting that a shorter length-of-stay associated with secure text messaging didn’t lead to higher readmission rates.

Clear win for health care

Secure messaging provides a clear win for health care in terms of facilitating streamlined workflows, improving communications between care team members and enabling better care coordination. Although clinicians still aren’t able to use the technology for patient orders, secure messaging offers a wealth of advantages for providers – especially when compared to the inefficient options of yester-year and those endless games of phone tag.

Linda Fischer is the senior director of Product Solutions for DrFirst. She previously spent 22 years as CIO of Huntington Hospital.


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