AIDS.gov: Privacy and text messaging reminders

By Brian Dolan
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The AIDS.gov site, which is a joint effort put together by a number of federal agencies and programs involved in AIDS prevention, research, testing and treatment, has published its fourth and final post on using text messages for HIV appointment and medication reminders (but most of the advice works for any implementation of text message reminders in healthcare settings.) Here's a quick run-down on the latest post from AIDS.gov--this one focuses on best practices when it comes to text messages, privacy and HIPAA: 

1) Always ask clients to opt-in to receive text message reminders and be sure they know regular text messaging fees will apply. Those fees vary by carrier but it's unlikely a user would have an unlimited text messaging plan and not know it.

2) Remember: Text messages are not completely confidential. They are most similar to voicemails on answering machines, which could be listened to by parents, partners or friends. There is also potential concerns with cell phone companies having access to and a record of text messages, so be sure to use HIPAA-compliant guidelines like those used for leaving voicemail messages. Those include not identifying the type of service your providing or even your clinic's name in some cases. An appointment time and clinic phone number should suffice.

Read on for other SMS best practices...

3) If you are working with a third party text messaging vendor or encouraging the use of free online reminder systems, be sure to find out what the third party's privacy policies are. 

4) Never send test results by text or other diagnostic information. This is a sure sticking point toward ensuring HIPAA compliance. Instead just send a text that asks the patient to "please call". 

5) Some clinicians have found that some tech-savvy clients may want to write their own text for the reminders, especially when it comes to compliance messages. Dr. Nadia Dowshen of Children's Memorial Hospital told AIDS.gov that her younger clients might want a message that just says: "Do ur thing," she said. That way the kids remember but privacy is maintained.

For more on privacy concerns when using text messages, read the latest AIDS.gov post here. And in case you missed it, check out our coverage of the AIDS.gov blog's previous posts on the costs as well as the "why" and "how" of text message appointment reminders.