Modern business is all about convenience. For years, the healthcare industry had no choice but to fall behind with many of the more mobile and convenience-driven trends in technology due to information security issues and concerns about providing the best possible care for patients.
In healthcare, technology was typically associated with new types of machines to test for potential illnesses or exploratory surgeries with robot-assisted technology. For years, communicative technology was neglected because, many assumed, how can you improve on direct, face-to-face communication and testing?
Well, as it turns out, the world is changing-and so is healthcare.
“Doctors are losing patients to urgent care and telemedicine,” said Clinton Phillips, founder of the telehealth company 2nd.MD, during an interview with MedCity News. “They don’t have the tools to really compete.”
As our society becomes more dependent on mobile and distance interactions, the expectation for many patients is that they receive the same level of convenience from their healthcare providers. Texting doctors, while not yet entirely mainstream, may not be far away from an everyday reality for many practices.
If your practice is considering expanding its communicative capabilities into the telehealth realm, there are many pros and cons to consider before implementing a texting platform. The following are just a few of the many factors that may weigh on your decision to expand your telehealth capabilities.
Convenience for patients. Sometimes, patients only have a simple question or two that they need answered. Scheduling an appointment may not be possible, due to timing or because of work, financial, or personal issues. Every mother has experienced the frustration of going into the doctor’s office with a sick child only to be told that it’s a virus and the only thing that will help is time and rest. Many of those mothers would have preferred texting doctors with details about the issue or utilizing other telehealth technology to resolve the problem in the comfort and safety of their own homes, without having to take a sick child to an office where they might expose other children or be exposed to more illnesses. In the end, a telehealth option would also be less costly and less time-consuming for everyone involved.
Easier and quicker for doctors. Often, medical practitioners spend a great deal of time meeting with patients whose concerns are simple. They spend hours tackling issues that might be better managed in a few minutes with a simple text. According to Phillips: “It’s a given we’ll be making a meaningful difference in our patients’ lives, but I think that’s what’s missing. If you don’t make it useful for physicians, you can’t drive meaningful change.” Meaningful changes in healthcare need to extend to doctors as well, or else the healthcare industry will lose valuable minds to a threat of being overworked and undervalued in a profession that needs brilliance and dedication more than any other.
Facilitates an easy, authentic relationship between patients and doctors. Pregnant women, new parents, and those suffering from chronic issues are just a few types of patients who may have simple questions that could be resolved quickly by the ability to text doctors and lead to less stress for the patients, as well as accessibility when they need a professional opinion the most. This kind of access to a healthcare professional will only build patient loyalty and satisfaction.
Identifying how much access is too much access. An unavoidable conclusion about increased access is that with more convenience, more people will feel compelled to take advantage of the opportunity of quick, affordable, and easy healthcare options, such as texting doctors. At least initially, telehealth has the potential to create the same boom that universal healthcare once reportedly caused with the start of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), though that claim is disputed by more than one source. However, it speaks to reason that as families are able to access their doctors quickly and conveniently, they may do so more frequently than is entirely necessary. Should your practice choose to explore texting doctors or other telehealth options, you need to determine the answer to one very important question: how much is too much?
Privacy and liability issues. Probably the most difficult aspect of allowing texts between doctors and patients is privacy and the potential for liability issues. According to privacy laws set in place by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) policies, any information related to patients has to be managed in a very strict, professional, and private manner. When it relates to technology, this can be very difficult. With texting, a typically casual act, setting clear policies and adopting technology to facilitate and protect your patients’ confidentiality is essential. According to one article, avoiding texting altogether is more secure, but it may not be realistic in the increasingly mobile market that patients and doctors cope with today.
Billing concerns. A final significant challenge for healthcare practices will be determining how to bill for telehealth services. Since the concept is so new to healthcare, there will be a learning curve and several practice-specific adaptations that will no doubt be necessary. To get started, a billing professional can utilize the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) website resources for a basic understanding of CMS billing processes. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) version 10 also accounts for telehealth coding, so learning the right codes is very possible. The challenge for many practices will be quantifying and recording all billable information, then communicating the policy for cost and coverage clearly with patients. It’s important to establish and communicate the potential costs and limitations up front to prevent any future billing/payment issues.
While texting doctors may not always be the best way for patients to communicate with their healthcare professionals, it is certainly a convenient one. This form of telehealth doesn’t apply to all situations, but the options could appeal greatly to certain patients in certain situations.
However, implementing a texting policy and process is not without risks. Make sure to do your research, adopt the most secure and flexible technology you can find, aand always keep both your doctors and your patients in mind when exploring a new way to provide healthcare. Both are important to the health and wellness of your practice, which is just as important as the individuals it serves.
About the Author - Ashley Choate is a native of Jacksonville, FL where she lives with her son, dog, and three cats. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Jacksonville University with a BA in English and holds an MAED in Adult Education and Training. She lives for reading and writing, learning and teaching, and figuring out the day-to-day traumas and joys of mommyhood.