Regulators are serious about privacy and violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) (P.L. 104-191), and crackdowns keep providers on their toes. The evolution of technology provides innovative and efficient ways to practice medicine and communicate with patients, but this evolution brings with it new obstacles that can easily trip up a provider who is not paying close attention. At the end of a long day, a tired doctor might send a quick text to a mother who does not want to bring in her sick child if over-the-counter medicines will do the trick, trying to be as accommodating as possible and truly caring for the patient’s well-being. Both mother and doctor will be relieved that an unnecessary trip was avoided, but is this type of communication appropriate?
The American Medical Association (AMA) provides guidelines for providers on issues just like this one, and the AMA House of Delegates will consider expanding its advice on email communications to include text messaging at a June meeting. Although the AMA maintains that a face-to-face meeting is the foundation of a physician’s relationship with a patient, it recognizes that patients and physicians may prefer text message communications in various settings.
Considerations when texting
As expected, the AMA’s first basic standard of engagement to consider is HIPAA. The Board of Trustees (BOT) recommends discussing obligations under HIPAA’s Security Rule with both information technology (IT) staff and legal counsel. This rule requires that entities transmitting electronic protected health information (ePHI) ensure that these transmissions are confidential and secure. The AMA provides an educational tool to assist providers in achieving compliance with the rule, and HHS offers advice on protecting ePHI when using cell phones.
Providers should keep in mind potential differences in communication with patients, as opposed to colleagues. While doctors and nurses in the same office may think nothing of texting one another, a patient needs to consent to communication. Current guidance indicates that a patient’s initiation of a text conversation may serve as consent, but some providers might obtain written consent that acknowledges risks in such transmissions. Patients should be reminded that security is not guaranteed and that privacy can be breached as easily as someone they know using their phone and seeing a text.
In addition to consent and security issues, the AMA raises several points more along the lines of etiquette but that must be approached within the patient-physician relationship framework. A physician should establish boundaries with patients, such as establishing reasonable response times and appropriate times of day for texting. Additionally, extensive conversations are not recommended, and if a patient requests a lengthy explanation the physician should request that the patient come into the office.
When texting, the AMA recommends keeping a formal tone, cordial but refraining from using jokes, emoticons, or emotionally charged or sarcastic speech. The recommendations even extend to ending texts with the physician’s full name and business affiliation, accompanied by a request to acknowledge receipt of the message. Although it may seem obvious, the AMA also reiterates refraining using identifying information such as name or Social Security number and keeping text records.