Free secure texting app helps South Carolina hospital improve communications

By Neil Versel
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Imprivata CorTextSouth Carolina's Beaufort Memorial Hospital expects to save millions of dollars this year and potentially prevent some deaths as well by investing in secure texting technology, attendees of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) Fall CIO Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., heard last week.

According to the hospital's VP and CIO Ed Ricks, texting between clinicians could speed up hospital discharges by an average of 50 minutes per patient. Extrapolated nationally, that could reduce expenditures by $8 billion a year, he said.

So why do so many hospitals stick with inefficient, outdated technologies like pagers and voice mail when texting is so much faster, reliable and convenient? "You have HIPAA," Ricks said. Standard texting simply is not secure enough to meet HIPAA requirements, and penalties become more stringent last month when modifications in the new HIPAA Omnibus Rule took effect.

Yet, according to 2012 research from Spyglass Consulting Group that Ricks cited in his presentation, 42 percent of physicians use native, unsecured texting apps on smartphones to exchange messages with colleagues and support staff. "This is a security concern for us," Ricks said, matter-of-factly.

Ricks actually is happy to have a bring-your-own-device policy at Beaufort Memorial since he does not want to manage thousands of devices and clinicians would rather not carry multiple phones. "We just have to make sure we're HIPAA-compliant," he said.

In early 2012, Ricks signed on to use the free version of Cortext, a secure messaging system from Lexington, Mass.-based vendor Imprivata. He just wanted to prove the concept, so he picked 10 clinicians – not all doctors – to test it out. "Within a few days, we were at 60," Ricks reported, an impressive number for a hospital with 197 licensed beds and a medical staff of about 160 physicians.

Phase 2 of the texting exercise was about a four-week process. Within a week or two of starting this phase, Beaufort had more than 200 users, including Ricks and several other administrators. "I encourage physicians to track me down immediately whenever they have an issue instead of stewing about it," Ricks said.

Ricks reported that one physician told him, "Finally you're doing something for me instead of to me."

The current Phase 3 is growth by word-of-mouth. "Clearly, I think it's helped our efficiency and our communication," Ricks said. "It's one of those things that doesn't take a lot of effort or a lot of money to do."

Though the free Cortext software lets the IT department audit text messages and keep logs of all communications over the system, the messages are considered informal, not part of a patient's medical record, Ricks said. He does want to get patients involved eventually, however. "That's the next great challenge for everybody," Ricks said.

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