Guest Column | June 6, 2018

Improving Patient Communication While Keeping It Secure

By Jim Higgins, Solutionreach

Digital Omnivore Doctors

Building relationships with patients is a must in today’s healthcare world. Patients want to feel a connection with their providers, and the best way to do that is to maintain consistent, valuable communication with each patient. Providers can build relationships by sending educational newsletters, appointment reminders, and recall messages through patient relationship management (PRM) software, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open both ways. Patients want to hear from their providers, but they also want to be able to easily reach them. They want convenient communication methods, so anytime they have questions or want to schedule an appointment they don’t have to waste time on the phone.

That’s where it gets a little tricky though. Healthcare professionals are dealing with a lot of protected health information (PHI), and there are regulations in place to secure patient privacy. Offering options like email and text messaging are great, and many patients will take advantage of those options. However, it’s up to the practice to ensure they keep PHI confidential. So practice staff need to be aware of ways to secure patient-provider communication, and be knowledgeable about what information can and can’t be shared over unsecured channels. Violating regulations can carry huge consequences for healthcare practices, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to know and follow all applicable standards.

Not only do providers want to avoid legal consequences, they also want to maintain trusting relationships with their patients. Implementing policies and using a few simple tools to make communication both convenient and compliant shows patients that a provider cares about their experience and their privacy.

Compliance Tool

Texting has become the most preferred way to communicate. Patients text their friends and family members, and they also want to be able to text their healthcare provider. PRM software can text-enable a practice’s existing landline, so patients can text their provider just like they would anybody else. When the practice receives a text, they get a notification on their desktop computer. They can either read the message and respond right away, or if they are in the middle of helping another patient, they can flag the message and come back to it when they are finished.

This is easy and convenient for both the practice staff and the patients. The hard part comes when patients send a text message to the practice that contains PHI. A text message isn’t a secure connection, so practices can’t discuss personal information with patients through texts without authorization. A texting solution within patient communication software will have a consent tool to help practices continue the conversation but maintain compliance. With the consent tool, the practice staff can send an already crafted message to the patient letting them know a text message isn’t a secure way to discuss PHI. The practice can ask if the patient would like to continue the conversation through text anyway, or offer to move the conversation to the secure messaging feature in the practice’s PRM software, a phone call, or a visit. If the patient agrees to continue texting, the practice’s texting system will flag the patient’s account so the other members of the practice staff can see that the patient has consented to discuss personal information over text. If not, the conversation can be moved to another channel.

Ensuring the practice staff understands the importance of checking for the consent flag and asking patients for consent if it isn’t there is vital in building patients’ trust and protecting the practice.

Contact Information

While most patients prefer texting and other forms of digital communication like email, contact information changes frequently. People change cell phone providers and receive new phone numbers, or they get tired of an email address, create a new one, and stop checking their old inbox. It doesn’t take very long to have a patient verify their contact information when they arrive for an appointment, especially if the practice is using a digital check-in procedure. And while the patient is verifying their information, they can double-check their preferred contact method too.

Patient communication software is linked to the existing practice management system, so ensuring updated contact information is helpful when the practice is communicating with patients. Sending appointment reminders or targeting educational newsletters won’t do any good if they are being sent to an incorrect phone number or email address. And when a patient texts a practice, the texting solution pulls contact information from the practice management system so practice staff know who they are communicating with without having to look it up themselves. Making small updates every time a patient visits the office doesn’t take much time, but it keeps the patient database clean and accurate and helps ensure compliance with text and email regulations.

Understanding the need for secure and convenient patient communication is beneficial for healthcare practices. Not all conversations with patients need to be held through a secure channel, but knowing when it is needed and having procedures in place to ensure it happens will protect both the practice and the patient.