Telehealth tools that patients want: text messaging

We are truly seeing massive changes in the way non-emergency healthcare services are delivered across the country. In response to directives nationwide to stay home and reduce the spread of COVID-19, both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Federal Communications Commission released updated rules and emergency funds to promote the implementation of telehealth tools. These updates mean millions of Americans can now access telehealth benefits through their current providers.

As consumers learn more about telehealth technology and begin to utilize it themselves, their response has been encouraging. For example, the research firm Sykes recently surveyed Americans and found three-quarters of respondents would now consider using telehealth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those surveyed reported convenience as a major reason why using telehealth services in the future are attractive to them as well. Only ten percent of the respondents surveyed had already utilized telehealth services, with most of the early adopters between the ages of 18 and 34.

When I think of the huge number of new patients accessing healthcare services using telemedicine in the near future and what patients want out of it, I think of ways the technology can be used to improve communication between providers, patients, and administrative staff. As doctors connect with more patients outside of the office, they need effective new ways to communicate to ensure a continued focus on patient-centered care.

One option that I think will become more and more valuable as we see an increase in telehealth providers nationwide is text messaging, used to connect providers and patients anywhere, anytime, and from any device. Texting with patients is a valuable and important way to communicate that every practice should consider implementing.

Advantages of Patient Text Messaging

Simple and effective – Most people already use and understand how text messaging works. Familiarity with the technology will help patients overcome the new changes they face in communicating with their doctors remotely rather than face-to-face and help improve adoption rates.

No download required – Rather than making patients download another new app, texting allows patients who don’t understand or can’t access smartphone apps to speak with a doctor exactly the same way they do with their family members and friends.

Not real-time – Texting allows for conversations to continue over a period of time. It doesn’t require an immediate response from either the patient or the doctor and it allows you to scroll back and review the previous comments to help direct future conversations. Both patients, staff, and doctors can respond to texts (individually or in bulk) when they have the time, and providers can carry on more than one patient conversation at a time.

Assigning work – Texting can work like a ticketing or support system, with providers assigning patient requests to different staff, marking items (i.e. open, closed, pending), and keeping track of all conversations within one platform.

Remote work-friendly – Text messaging doesn’t require a specific technology or an office environment to run smoothly. It won’t increase your overhead and staff can respond from home or on the go.

Reducing call wait times – Using a different number for text messaging than in-person calls can help reduce patient call wait times by giving them another simple way to connect.

Challenges of Patient Text Messaging

Learning curve – Although the technology is common, using it to communicate effectively between patient and doctor is new. Anything new takes time to master and the learning curve will be different across providers and patients. Patience may be in order.

HIPAA-compliance – Using the technology requires updated consideration of the usual rules and requirements and you may want to retrain staff on key issues – like receiving consent to speak on medical issues with a patient over text. While patients can share any information with providers, doctors must receive consent before sharing medical information with patients.

Implementing new workflows – As providers implement changes to their staffing and workflows, including working from home, and utilizing new tools, managing text messaging across the organization adds another layer of complexity. It’s important to go into it with some standard operating procedures.

One more system to use – If you implement text messaging using a new system, it may require an additional logon and be one more ‘thing’ to check daily for staff. Showing the positive impact on patients and the business early on will be important to encourage staff adoption.

Here are a few tips from our talented team on implementing patient messaging:

Implementing New Workflows

  • Pre-visit Workflows – Use texting to send patients forms to sign, payment details to accept, and other administrative items so patients can spend more quality time with providers one-on-one.
  • Check-In – Let patients send you a text when they are leaving from the house on the way to the office to improve time management, reduce wait times, and strengthen social distancing practices.
  • Virtual Waiting Rooms – Let patients wait in the car prior to coming into the office, using text messaging to report their arrival and for you to ‘call them in’ when ready.
  • General Questions – Encourage patients to text questions as a convenient option over calling the office, which will be responded to within a set time frame and reduces ‘call tag’ between doctors and patients and lengthy phone wait times.
  • Marketing – Consider whether marketing new telehealth services like texting with a provider will set you apart and how you can get the word out about it.

Technology Platforms that Support Text Messaging

  • Existing Phone Systems – Your existing phone system may provide a texting feature. Make sure it is HIPAA-compliant and that you can log-in from home.
  • Unified Communication Systems – Cloud-based systems like Google Voice provide simple text, call, video conference, and other functionality. Make sure you get a HIPAA-compliant business associate agreement in place before transitioning.
  • Automated Communication Systems – These are systems like ours, typically built to help clients automate workflows, and most now have text-enabled features.

Additional Considerations Before You Begin

  • Cost Evaluation – Everyone is feeling the pain right now. Before you switch to a pricey new tool to manage text messaging, evaluate whether you have similar functionality already available through your current systems.
  • Evaluate the Problem – Before you implement text messaging, identify what challenges you have that it could help solve and establish a plan for evaluating the new service over time to ensure it is accomplishing what you set off to do.
  • Where Does it Need to Work From – Before selecting the right tool, research the potential impact on your workflows of adding text and pick a solution that works from where you need it to work – whether that’s in the office (from multiple terminals), at home or on the go.

Here are a few final thoughts to set you down the right path. If you’re going to implement text messaging to enhance communication between patients and providers, start small. Test it with one workflow, one patient, or visit type or one single provider first. Then, evaluate the success and if useful, implement it across additional workflows and/or groups. Maybe it’s first used to allow patients to check-in from the parking lot or as a new way for patients to ask questions about specific topics. Or, maybe it’s only used at first in connection with telehealth visits. Starting small will allow you to adjust the tool to meet your needs and mitigate issues in the short and long term.

Next, evaluate new vendors carefully. If it seems too good to be true – from a price or a technology perspective – it may very well be. Don’t move too quickly because of the importance and the timeliness of the position we’re all in right now. Instead, take the time to get it right because this is a tool that you’re going to use in the long term.

Finally, go into implementation under the assumption that some of these changes will not be short term. Instead of a specific response to COVID-19, new technologies like communicating via text directly with a doctor are here to stay. That’s why it’s important to get the implementation right the first time. Some of these are going to offer fundamental changes in how your practice does business. To get it right, embrace the change, measure your success, and don’t be afraid to make updates as you go along.

Our team is here to help. With questions big or small, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our service team for support implementing new technologies like text messaging. We can help connect new tools and services with your existing Vital Interaction systems and recommend new approaches to ensure success as we all work together to enhance patient care and in the short term, respond to the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on our industry.

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