Quick – when was the last time you used your smartphone to investigate a health issue? If you are like most people you are probably a “connected patient” using smart devices to take more ownership of your health. A 2015 Pew Research Center (PEW) report shows 62% of smartphone owners use their phone to look up information about a health condition. And many of us now also use our smartphones to correspond with providers.

It’s a Wide Circle of Care

Patients nowadays build a wide digital “circle of care” for advice, solace, support and information as they learn how to tackle debilitating, chronic and acute medical conditions. We no longer must face cancer, stroke or chronic diseases like diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression or even addiction alone. Technology and changing attitudes about “only the doctor should know” have made us more social and more proactive about our healthcare. Online medical information, support communities and texting healthcare providers, family and friends have become central to the trying times of confronting and managing serious health conditions. We heal better within our own “circle of care.”

Not Just for 20-Somethings

We are not talking only Millennials here. All age groups are “connected patients,” increasingly using smartphones to engage with healthcare providers, family, and online communities to get and share health information. Certainly, millennials simply expect to use smart devices for health communications and community. But interestingly, the 65+ age group is picking up the pace of smartphone usage. PEW report 27% of the 65+ age group uses smartphones, showing an upward trend. The study also reveals that texting is the most popular smartphone feature, no matter what age. I personally experienced this trend bout 4 years ago, when my 70+ parents both insisted on getting a smartphone. Their motivation? Turned out they wanted to swap their flip phones for smartphones so they could send pictures and texts to doctors and family members when needed. But we need to ask ourselves – are there risks in all this connected socializing on our health conditions? This is very private stuff, yet we share it on social media and via text without a second thought when we need support or answers about an illness. We will explore this more in a future blog. For now, let’s take a look at how healthcare providers use smartphone texting, and discuss concerns and risks that need to be addressed, including keeping our data safe and secure under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Your Care Providers Text All the Time

So let’s talk about health care providers in this connected environment. Of course, healthcare professionals use smart devices to collaborate with colleagues, third parties, and other downstream caregivers. And yes, they text with patients and patient family members. Think of all the health data that is bandied back and forth among doctors, hospitals, physical therapists, post-acute and long-term care providers just for one patient. For example, a doctor may text a skilled nursing facility to get ongoing post-stroke patient updates. Or vice, versa. These health communications are critical to our treatment and healing process. But are they secure? It is estimated that at a minimum over 30% of physicians have received protected health information (PHI) via native SMS text. These texts can stay on physician or nurse phones for indefinite periods – posing risks of misuse or leaks that can significantly harm the healthcare providers’ reputation, embarrass patients and violate privacy laws. Worse yet, patient PHI or personally identifiable information (PII) can end up on the dark web in prescription or other personal data fraud scams. If not using secure texting to communicate, or some other secure means of communication, health care providers create great risk for themselves and their patients.

Long Term and Post-Acute Care

Reality is that healthcare has gone mobile, and our population is definitely aging. Experts tell us that many of our loved ones, along with ourselves, will need long-term, post-acute and in-home care at some point. With 70% of us charted to spend time in some form of long-term care after 65, it’s a good idea to consider the security of mobile communications and how these health providers intend to communicate with each other, patients and their families. A Hospitals & Health Networks blog emphasizes that with insurance payers now holding hospitals responsible for care beyond hospital stays, the need for secure communication pathways between hospitals and post-acute providers has never been greater. Hospitals must monitor patients in post-acute settings as if they were still under their care. To manage these risks, hospitals, acute, and long-term care providers are forming strategic partnerships for the new extended care model. A key element of these partnerships is a sharp focus on data exchange protocols and issue escalation procedures, making secure texting an important component in providing high-value care. In-home care providers also must stay connected to call centers, other nurses, doctors and patient families. Many now use smartphones to confirm schedules, send patient notes, text a picture of a wound or receive orders for rapid treatment. From help with daily tasks for the elderly to recovery from a surgery to those final days of hospice, the home healthcare industry is in great demand. Clearly, they too must have secure texting protocols to support the “circle of care” with required protections and compliance to protect patient privacy.

Safe Healthcare Texting

All of these digital communications about our health on smart devices make secure text messaging imperative. Providers must protect our health information under HIPAA, and account for cyber scam and data breach concerns. At Vaporstream we believe secure, compliant messaging with disappearing texts is something all modern healthcare providers must integrate into communications protocols. Bluntly put – encryption is simply not enough for regulated institutions handling PHI and PII. As a “connected patient,” we should all ask our healthcare providers if they offer patients tools for secure texting. I know that in taking care of my parents – or myself – I want to ensure that we can communicate within a secure circle of care. I want to know all our messages are indeed safe and private. At the end of the day, that is what we are all after. We want peace of mind as we share our personal and private health information – as a patient but as a health professional as well. To find out more about how Vaporstream enables the secure circle of care communication, contact us or ask to see a demo.

Contributor-Kristi Perdue Hinkle