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MDU issues safe text advice to GPs

Doctors urged to ensure patients consent to communication via text message

Monday, 15 March 2010

GP practices that communicate with patients via text message are being advised to ensure patients have "opted in" to the service and not simply to rely on implied consent.

More practices using text messages to communicate with patients about appointments, or to take medication, communicating test results, or checking on a patient’s progress.

But in an article in the MDU’s new journal for GPs, Good Practice, the MDU says that it is unwise to rely on patients’ implied consent to allow the practice to communicate with them in this way. It is better to adopt a cautious approach and get the patient’s express consent, the MDU advises.

The MDU advises practices wishing to communicate with patients by text message:

  • Ensure the benefits of any system outweigh the risks – take all reasonable steps to ensure patient confidentiality is protected.
  • Ensure all those involved in the use of the system, including patients, fully understand what information will be transmitted.
  • Consider extra security measures if you plan to communicate sensitive information, such as test results. For example, by asking the patient to respond to a message confirming their identity by using a pre-arranged password immediately prior to transmission. Alternatively, consider using a different method for communicating such information.
  • Document details of text messages sent to or received from patients in the medical record. Include the date and time of transmission, the content of any message and the details of any reply.
  • Consider alternative or additional methods of communicating important information to patients, such as requests for urgent follow-up.

The journal also highlights the usefulness of texting as a communication tool.  Dr Shikha Pitalia and the team at Ashton Medical Centre in Wigan practice instigated a system to allow patients to cancel appointments by text message and managed to cut the previously high do not attend rates by 20%. 

Dr James Armstrong, MDU medico-legal adviser said that while GPs may publicise a text message service to patients on the practice website, practice leaflet and through posters in the waiting room, many patients may still not be aware of the service and maybe surprised to receive a text.

“For this reason, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and ensure patients give specific consent to be communicated with by text, so their confidential information can be protected, in line with GMC guidance 2. That way, the GP also has an opportunity to reassure the patient about the security arrangements in place and to ensure they have the correct mobile number to avoid the danger of confidentiality breaches.”

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