How Texting Tools Save Time, Help Clinical Collaboration, and Improve Patient Communication
// By Melanie Graham //
For many of us, our cellphones have been woven into nearly every part of our daily lives. We use them to deposit money, send email, and track our daily step count. We also use them to constantly communicate, whether it’s through social media, texting, and (rarely, it seems) phone calls.
With countless apps and new technology increasing our communication channels, shouldn’t it be easier to communicate with your healthcare providers? Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
In the hectic healthcare climate, patient communication can seem disjointed and rushed. In a recent study commissioned by The Physicians Foundation, a survey of more than 1,700 people found that while most were satisfied with their provider, only 11 percent of respondents felt that they had enough time with their physicians. Thirty-one percent of respondents also felt their physicians were overwhelmed or overworked.
There are many ways technology can alleviate some of these pain points, and texting can be a key player in improving those patient-physician relationships. Solutionreach, a patient relationship management system, recently conducted a survey that showed a large correlation between communication technology and patient satisfaction.
“We saw some huge gaps in the number of patients who wanted the ability to text their provider, and the number of practices actually offering that technology,” says Lea Chatham, director of content marketing for Solutionreach. “There was also a big number of patients who left a practice because they were dissatisfied with communication, and not because of a change in insurance.”
“Providers are stretched thin and busy, so it can be hard to find time for phone calls,” says Amelia Coleman, vice president for business development at OhMD. “Triaging patient messages with texting is much more effective.”
OhMD is one of many texting solutions available for healthcare providers and practices. The app (free to download on Android, iOS, and web) allows physicians to securely communicate with patients and other healthcare providers.
For patients, text communication can help them quickly reschedule appointments, fill a prescription, or check in with their doctor about a concerning symptom, all without having to hold on the phone or log into an online patient portal. On the clinician side, less time is spent playing phone tag and catching up on voicemails.
“Many clinicians are bogged down with administrative tasks that keep us from focusing on our clients,” says OhMD user Tiffany Cagle-Schrift, LPC, BCN, NCC. “Using texting platforms like OhMD cuts down on those ‘back and forth’ phone calls, which prevents provider burnout.”
Cagle-Schrift is executive clinical director for A Brighter Mind, a practice specializing in neurofeedback, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a small private practice without an administrative assistant, texting through the OhMD app makes it easier for Cagle-Schrift to handle tasks like scheduling appointments, allowing her more time to provide care to her patients.
Solutionreach rolled out a texting feature on its platform earlier this year (Solutionreach Conversations), and the response from early adopters has been positive.
“The texting feature has significantly cut down the amount of time staff is spending on the phone,” says Chatham. “Staff members are not getting pulled away from patients, and fewer phone calls make the office less distracting for both patients and staff.”
Solutionreach’s texting feature can tap into a provider’s existing landline, which saves practices from having to get a special cell phone or new phone number. It also means patients receive texts from a known, trusted number, and can respond using familiar SMS messaging.
On the provider end, Solutionreach taps into the office’s existing electronic health records and patient contact information. When the staff receives a text from a patient, the patient is identified right away. Staff members respond to messages on their computers through the cloud-based platform.
“It’s a great tool for tasks like filling wait list appointments,” Chatham adds. “It’s immediate, you can send out multiple messages quickly, and patients can respond directly.”
Not only does texting save time, it also provides a communication option for patients who may not be able to call because of work or medical issues, says Cherlyn Flor, office manager for Bond Family Eye Care. The Decatur, Texas, optometry practice was one of the early adopters of the Solutionreach texting platform.
“It’s a win-win for both parties — the office and the patient,” Flor says.
Making Cross-Team Collaboration Easier
Texting benefits not only patient relationships, it also helps providers maintain communication across care teams.
Although OhMD was a patient-first application, Coleman says “doc to doc” uses are an easy point of entry for practices looking to adopt texting technology. The app allows for fast and consistent communication across the care continuum.
For example, if a primary care physician needs to refer a patient to a specialist, he or she can message the specialist with pertinent information about the patient that may not be listed in the electronic health record. In another use case, an emergency department doctor can message an orthopedic surgeon to get a consult on an injured patient.
In a secure texting environment like the OhMD app, providers also can send images, such as x-rays, to help make the treatment process move smoothly and quickly.
“Texting is an easy way to triage in an acute-care environment,” Coleman says. “Having tech solutions that allow providers to communicate and collaborate on care is really important.”
Helping Maintain a Written Record
One of the biggest drawbacks to phone calls is not having a written record of that conversation. Directions and medications can be hard to remember, and separate conversations with different providers are not necessarily shared across care teams.
Texting solves that problem.
“With texting, patients can look up the information again, there’s a record of the conversation, and it’s HIPAA protected,” says OhMD user Bruce Bullock, MD, of Marble Valley Healthworks, LLC, in Rutland, Vermont.
Having a text record of a patient conversation also allows teams to easily collaborate and share information. Whether it’s a group text among providers or a cloud-based platform, texting applications can easily archive communications that may need to be referenced at a later date.
At Bond Family Eye Care, Flor explains that the Solutionreach text feature allows her to flag messages to come back to later, or archive them for future reference. The ability to come back to a conversation helps keep communication consistent and serves as “a great learning tool” when replying to similar cases or training staff members.
Keeping Security Top of Mind
Regardless of which texting platform a practice uses, patient privacy and HIPAA compliance should be top of mind, Coleman says.
“Security is of critical importance,” Coleman adds. “The reason people seek out applications like OhMD is to ensure safety of patient data because HIPAA violations are a real threat these days.”
In the case of OhMD, the app features end-to-end encryption and requires credentials to log in. Once the app is open, it functions just like an SMS texting platform most users are familiar with.
For Solutionreach’s SMS-based texting tool, users must give consent before talking about patient health information (PHI) via text. If PHI comes up during a texting conversation with a provider, the provider sends a text asking the user to give consent to talk about PHI. The user then replies “consent” (“yes”) or “no.” If the patient does not wish to talk about PHI over text, he or she can then be directed to other communication channels, such as the phone or an online patient portal.
Some texting applications also take advantage of the increasing use of automation. Providers can send automated alerts for simple appointment reminders, patient education, insurance or billing requests, and public health announcements, such as a flu shot clinic.
Although it has many benefits, automation is another feature providers need to think about when developing consent forms for texting services. To text about non-healthcare issues like clinics or bill pay, providers need to get permission from the patient, Chatham explains, because certain regulations prohibit spamming users with information via text. To make things easier, Chatham recommends providers include a text communication component to new patient forms.
Lightweight Tools Are the Future of Healthcare Communication
Whether it’s automated chats or texting, Coleman says the future of healthcare communication is likely one filled with lightweight tools that make patient communication fast and simple.
“In the future, I think we’re going to see a shift toward technologies that are more consumer text-based,” Coleman says. “With changing budgets and regulatory environments, we’re going to see providers looking to communications solutions that are lighter and easier to use.”
Bullock, who has been using OhMD for about a year and a half, agrees that the cost savings and efficiency are likely to drive more providers toward texting solutions.
“Tools like OhMD are just the beginning,” Bullock says. “Using these tools is an enormous help in saving money, improving quality of care, reducing errors, and making the patient experience more seamless.”
Melanie Graham is a freelance writer, editor, and digital strategist who specializes in nonprofit and healthcare communications. She has a background in journalism, with experience in digital content marketing and social media management.