Texting for Telemedicine: Is Texting HIPAA Compliant?

Posted by Michael Hsu on 5/26/20 3:14 AM
Michael Hsu

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Texting is a service included in all phone packages, no matter which provider you use. It is one of the essential communication methods, second only to phone calls. Everybody knows how to use it, regardless of their age and love of new technology.

This universal application of the service has got many health professionals wondering whether or not texting is an acceptable way to communicate with their patients. The short answer is no—it usually isn't. There are some exceptions, but they are so rare that it raises the question of whether it's even practical to consider using texting as a way to communicate with patients. If the short answer doesn't work for you, here's an explanation—and a suggestion for a better alternative.

Is Texting HIPAA Compliant?

While HIPAA doesn't strictly forbid using SMS to send and receive confidential information, it does specify all the conditions which should be met for a communication system to be HIPAA compliant. The most relevant requirements are the following:

  • If you're sending a message to someone out of your organization's firewall, it needs to be encrypted. That way, even if intercepted, the info can't be used
  • The access to the PHI has to be limited to the users that need it, and there should be a system for monitoring them
  • A system for identification has to be in place. Every user should have a unique username and password
  • The system has to protect PHI from inappropriate changes or destruction

A standard SMS system typically doesn't comply with any of these requirements and is not HIPAA compliant. To make matters even worse, SMS is particularly vulnerable. There is no way to delete the PHI remotely when phones get lost or stolen, and the opportunities for mishandling the information are exceptionally high as anyone can edit a message before forwarding it to the final recipient.

Traditional texting is neither HIPAA compliant nor safe, and the smart thing to do is avoid it at all costs. In some cases, though, it is allowed to exchange PHI via this service. Some of the circumstances in which sending and receiving information through texting are:

  • Sending the patients the info regarding them, on the condition that the patient in question is informed of the security risk, has consented to it, and both the warning and the consent were documented
  • Covered Entity developing and using a system that makes up for the lack of security
  • A national emergency in which the HIPAA rules are waived

In these circumstances, you can use texting as a means to communicate in a health organization. However, true HIPAA compliant texting solutions are much better both for staff and the patients..

You May Use Texting for Telemedicine During the Covid-19 National Emergency

Because of the Covid-19 national emergency, the OCR has decided to issue a regulation that allows non-HIPAA compliant communication in healthcare. They did this to keep healthcare available for those who can't or won't put their health in jeopardy by spending time in waiting rooms or going out at all. The reduced data security measures will be on for as long as the national emergency lasts.

Just the fact that you can use it, though, doesn't mean it's a good idea. HIPAA is there for a reason. It helps you protect sensitive information about your patients, and you shouldn't jump at the chance to expose it.

There are more practical concerns as well. You would spend time and energy implementing a solution that is severely lacking in features that could make your staff’s lives easier. You wouldn't even be able to use the said solution once the emergency ends, so, aside from minuscule gain you might get, your efforts would be almost entirely wasted. Texting in healthcare is not worth the hassle.

There is a Better Option: Curogram

There is a much better way to go remote—Curogram. Our platform is adapted specially for healthcare, so it provides you with plenty of useful features that you can't get from conventional communication systems. It fully complies with the HIPAA rules for data protection.

Curogram is exceptionally easy to use, and it can integrate with your EHR in less than 48 hours. It'll assist your doctors and staff, and make your transition into telemedicine a breeze.

Using any tools that are not adapted for healthcare can lead to certain issues. Here are five problems you're bound to face if you try to use texting for telemedicine.

  1. Texting can't provide workflows for doctors
  2. Texting can't provide workflows for nurses and assistants
  3. Texting doesn't offer virtual waiting rooms
  4. Texting doesn't give an option for secure document transfer
  5. Texting doesn't integrate with EHRs

Curogram does all that and more.

 

Texting

Curogram

Mimic in-person workflows

No

Yes

Virtual waiting room

No

Yes

Allows secure document transfer

No

Yes

EHR integration

No

Yes

Texting Can't Provide Workflows for Doctors, Nurses, and Assistants

The amount of work that can be done through texting is nearly non-existent. You can schedule an appointment, reschedule if needed, and do short consultations. Even that is painfully complicated.

Your doctors would need to waste a lot of time doing administrative work, collecting the data they need, and prepping the patient for an appointment. Nurses would need to take care of the schedule, which means that they'd be stuck dealing with patients before and after they show up for an appointment.

If your nurses do scheduling, rescheduling, canceling, and so on, and your doctors do the administration and prep the patients for the appointments, how many people can they see in a workday?

This kind of system will waste a lot of time, and more often than not, annoy and stress out your staff. With Curogram, you can avoid the whole shenanigan. The appointments are scheduled, rescheduled, and recorded automatically, giving your nurses, assistants, and doctors time to do their job, instead of tedious, menial tasks. Curogram makes everything run smoothly and mimics the in-person appointment workflow. It will go a long way in keeping your staff—and your patients—happy as clams.

Texting Doesn't Allow for Virtual Waiting Rooms

Texting doesn't provide any way for the doctor to know who's waiting to be seen next. They would have to let the nurse know every time they're done with an appointment and wait for the nurse to tell them if anybody is waiting at the moment.

This can take up quite a bit of time, and it can lead to additional problems. If the nurse doesn't see the message immediately, is busy doing something else, or if there is a glitch in the system, the patient can be left waiting for a long time. If it happens a lot, it can severely damage your business because customer satisfaction will drop.

Curogram offers a virtual waiting room, which makes everything much more manageable.  The nurse can check in patient after patient, send them into the waiting room, where the doctor will spot them as soon as they finish their appointment with the previous patient. Everybody does their job, and everything goes smoothly.

You Cannot Send Documents via Texting in a Secure Way

Before the appointment even takes place, the patient needs to send the intake form that they've previously filled out. During the meeting, the doctor might require some additional files. After it, nurses need to provide the post-visit forms, including prescriptions for medicines, the recommendation for exercise, or, in some cases, even notes from the appointment.

This is all incredibly difficult to do over an SMS if you care about HIPAA compliance.

Curogram is 100% HIPAA compliant, and everything you send or receive is protected. You can take the documentation straight from the EHR, which makes everything much more secure since it negates the need to keep them in nurses' computers.

You Can’t Integrate Texting with EHRs

There is absolutely no possible way for texting to integrate with EHR in any way, shape, or form. It can't be done.

Curogram not only integrates with EHR but does so in 48 hours or less. It integrates with over 400 EHRs, which saves a lot of time on data entry, which would otherwise have to be done manually.

Here are just a few of EHRs that we can integrate with.

Curogram EHR integrations

eClinicalWorks

Athena

Epic

Cerner

DrChrono

NextGen

Practice Fusion

CareCloud

Kareo

OfficeAlly

See More Integrations Here

Transitioning to Telemedicine is Easy with Curogram

If you're not convinced that you should make an effort when it comes to your business' telemedicine options, or you believe that it's enough to use one of the approved non-HIPAA compliant methods during the Covid-19 emergency, consider the following:

  • You can combine telemedicine with the traditional business. Opting to keep with the times doesn't necessarily mean that you can't keep the tried, reliable option that you're used to. The combo of the two can significantly improve your business overall and increase your revenue.
  • If you don't stay up-to-date, you lose your edge on the market. If you want to make it and stay in business, you need to look forward. Like it or not, telemedicine is the future of medicine—and the future is now. Your competitors will use the opportunities that telemedicine offers, and if you want to stay in the game, so should you.
  • Covid-19 might not be over. We still have no vaccine for the virus, which means that it can make a comeback. If it decides to return in a few months, years, or decades, it makes no difference—without a vaccine, we'll be just as vulnerable as now, and we'll need to rely heavily on telemedicine again.

Despite its undeniable usefulness, the transition to telemedicine might not go as smoothly as you'd like. There are bound to be certain difficulties, and the essential ones are the following:

  1. Your patients might be a bit distrustful in the beginning
  2. The doctors will need a bit of time and effort to get used to it
  3. Your staff will need to get used to it
  4. It might be a challenge to keep all the documentation secure

Your patients might be a bit distrustful in the beginning

Your patients might doubt the feasibility of the new system or, more importantly, be doubtful about the confidentiality aspect of your business. Opting to do business through texting could make matters much worse. It can make you seem unprofessional and unwilling to adapt to the situation at the expense of your patients.

If you choose Curogram instead, you can keep all the simplicity of communication through the SMS, while still conducting your arrangements in an utterly professional manner. Your patients will get used to your new system and start trusting it in no time.

The doctors will need a bit of time and effort to get used to it

To work efficiently, doctors need support from nurses and other staff. They shouldn't have to deal with the organization, technical problems, and so on. Their job should be patient care and patient care only.

If you opt for Curogram, your doctors won't need to think about anything but the patient at hand. Your support staff will do their job, the doctors will do theirs, and they'll be able to work in synch while communicating with each other—not just the patients—to get the work done with the same efficiency as they would if the meeting was in person.

Your staff will need to get used to it

While texting is an option that beats many others—your patients don't need to install new apps, or learn to deal with complicated technology—it has several drawbacks that affect your staff more than any other part of your business.

Instead of prepping the patients for the appointment—which is what your team should be doing—they'll have to deal with administrative work. Scheduling and rescheduling, reminding the patients of the appointments, and similar tasks will take insane amounts of time and effort that your staff could use much more productively.

Curogram does all of that automatically. It keeps everything flowing neatly, and gives your staff the chance to do their work, instead of getting stuck in the administration hell. This way, everything runs smoothly, so your entire personnel can do their job promptly and efficiently.

It might be a challenge to keep all the documentation secure

The documentation that reaches your organization should be kept secure, which is a difficult task if you don't have proper tools. Texting does nothing to help you— everything sent via SMS stays recorded for the provider to access at any time, and that's not even the only issue.

The documents that you receive need to be organized. Without the appropriate programs, your staff will need to do it manually. That takes a lot of the time that they could spend working with patients. You'll need to come up with a system that works, so you don't lose files, and can access them at a moment's notice. Your staff can make mistakes, and harm your business through accidental misuse of your patients' data.

You can avoid all of these issues if you use Curogram. It allows you to receive and send data securely. It organizes the files according to the individual meetings, so there is no chance of any files being lost or misplaced. It allows you to take screenshots during the appointment, and ties those to the meeting documentation as well, in case you ever need them for insurance or any other reasons.

How Will Curogram Benefit Your Business?

When transitioning into telemedicine, you need all the convenience you can get. With Curogram, you can make the transition smooth and easy, so you won't lose your patients or harm your business. The three most important benefits of this option are:

  1. Keeping your employees happy
  2. Ability to reach more patients
  3. Increase in profits

Keeping Your Employees Happy

Making sure the work environment stays productive, manageable, and as familiar as possible will make your employees much more comfortable than an impractical transition into a less effective, more frustrating system. You can help your staff avoid stress and keep working without significant interruptions. Curogram provides the option of setting up a group chat for them, so they can communicate easily among themselves about any work-related issues and still keep everything secure.

Ability to Reach More Patients

With a reliable system for telemedicine, you can reach more patients. Sometimes people can't make it to the scheduled appointment because of personal issues—they couldn't find a babysitter, or they have to work from home. Sometimes they have to comply with the government-imposed movement restrictions during national emergencies. They can still make a virtual visit to their doctor if the need arises, so they don't have to make do without medical attention.

Increase in Profits

Using inefficient online systems will likely lead to bad reviews, and Curogram prevents that. Keeping your patients happy will bring you positive word-of-mouth, which will improve your business in the long run. Being able to reach more patients is bound to increase your profits as well. You will be losing much less money on no-shows, and you might be able to increase the patient volume once your staff gets used to the system, as they'll be more productive. Being able to work with more patients during a workday translates into more money for your business.

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Topics: HIPAA

Patient 2-Way Texting

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