Texting among doctors raises privacy concerns

Doctors find texting useful, but is patient data safe?

11/13/2012 7:08 AM

08/08/2014 10:13 AM

A recent national survey by the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita found that more than half of doctors send or receive work-related text messages.

But what has some concerned is whether their communications are secure.

“More and more I think it will be used in the medical setting, but we need to look at how we can protect patient information,” said Stephanie Kuhlmann, pediatric hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. Her survey included 106 pediatric hospitalists across the country.

About 46 percent of respondents said they worried Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules could be violated by sending and receiving patient information, and about one-third said they had received protected health information via text, Kuhlmann said.

“Hospitals probably need to be looking at encryption software for their institutions,” Kuhlmann said. “Many already have it for e-mail, but it seems a small number of places have it for text messaging.”

Francie Ekengren, Wesley Medical Center’s chief medical officer, said they do not mind doctors using text messages because using a mobile device that’s encrypted is more secure than paging.

Wesley doctors are provided with devices that have encrypted software, but they also rely on private physicians to have passwords on their phones.

“We don’t ever want to happen to have somebody’s private health information out in the public,” Ekengren said.

“We still ask that (physicians) try to limit what they’re texting, so it’s still secure.”

She said younger physicians especially prefer text messaging to traditional pagers.

“Our residents have grown up in that era and are tech savvy,” Ekengren said.

For Via Christi hospitals and clinics, the policy is to not text any patient information at all, said Brendan Rice, executive director of medical informatics and family practitioner for Via Christi Clinic

“In every technology innovation that comes out, security is always one of the top concerns, not just because of HIPAA, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Rice said.

Texting is more efficient than traditional modes of communication, said Sam Antonios, internal medicine hospitalist at Via Christi, who said he mainly uses it at work for scheduling.

Antonios said Via Christi is looking at developing its own secure messaging through an application or using a third-party vendor that can offer HIPAA-compliant messaging.

“As a general rule of thumb, (we try to) treat patient information how we’re treating our own private information, like bank account passwords and usernames. That level of security is expected,” Antonios said.

Kuhlmann thinks that over the next several years, traditional pagers will be replaced by cellphones and said she, like many other doctors, has pages sent to her phone via text message.

The Joint Commission, a national organization that oversees hospital accreditation, says physicians should not text orders for patient care to nurses or others, but should call so they can discuss the treatment.

“That is a safety feature so we know communication occurred correctly,” Ekengren said.

Additionally, about half of the respondents in the survey reported receiving work-related texts while not on call.

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