Physician text messaging sparks HIPAA concerns

Text messages may violate HIPAA rules when communicating health information

Most physicians use text messaging to exchange patient information with other health care providers, but experts say such communication could be a violation of federal privacy and security rules.

Brad Brooks, president and co-founder of TigerText, a provider of secure text messaging capabilities to health care organizations and other industries, said that more than 70% of physicians use text messaging to communicate with other health care providers about patients. He noted that text messaging allows health care providers to send and receive real-time information without relying on phone or email. Morevoer, text messaging offers a "huge opportunity" to improve the cost and quality of health care.

However, Brooks warned that health care providers' use of text messaging could violate HIPAA privacy and security rules if the messages contain protected health information and do not include adequate safeguards.

According to Adam Greene, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine and a former employee at HHS' Office for Civil Rights, HIPAA regulations apply to all electronic protected health information and data included in text messages could be covered under the broad definition of protected health information. For example, a text message between two physicians could be considered protected health information if it includes admission or discharge data that could lead to the identification of the patient.

Greene urged health care organizations to include health care providers' text messaging capabilities and content in their HIPAA risk analyses to identify any potential vulnerabilities (Casey Plank, BNA, 10/19).

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