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Nearly 4 in 10 GPs use texts to contact patients

Saves time, but GPs and patients concerned about confidentiality when using texts

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Nearly four in 10 GPs now use text messaging to communicate with patients, with the key advantage being saved time – but many GPs and patients are concerned about confidentiality, researchers have reported, and they have called for clearer guidelines for GPs on data protection. The Royal College of GPs said patients generally welcome texts, especially for matters such as appointment reminders, but sensitive information is best delivered face to face or by phone.

Primary care researchers in Cork, Ireland, surveyed 389 GPs by telephone about their use of text messaging to communicate with patients; they then held additional telephone interviews with 25 GPs who said they use texting and 26 who said they didn’t. They also conducted a written satisfaction survey with 78 patients; reviewed the electronic information system of five practices; and held a focus group with six GPs to ascertain their attitudes towards text messaging.

They reported yesterday, in the British Journal of General Practice, that 38% of all the GPs whom they surveyed used text messages to communicate with patients, and 62% did not. They also found that the number of text messages sent during the period from January 2013 to March 2016 increased by a mean of 40% per annum.

Time management was seen as the main advantage of texting, by 80% of GPs who did use it – as well as by 50% of those who did not. However, almost a third (32%) of GPs who used texting, and over two thirds (69%) of those who did not, said confidentiality was their principal concern about communicating by text. Despite the GPs’ concerns, very nearly all (99%) patients said they were happy for their GP to contact them by text.

The study’s authors said: “Collaborative efforts are required from relevant policymakers to address data protection and text messaging issues so that GPs can be provided with clear guidelines to protect patient confidentiality.”

The RCGP said it was hardly surprising that practices’ use of text messages has increased markedly, given that the technology is so straightforward – but it had some concerns. College chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard commented: “They are a cheap and convenient way to get important messages to patients and one area that we have seen particular benefit is in reducing missed appointments through sending out text reminders.

“However, we recognise the potential security limitations of texting especially to people who share their phones and GP practices will only send text messages to patients if they have given us permission to communicate with them in this way. In the main, we find our patients welcome this approach.

“If we need to get in touch with patients with sensitive information, such as test results that need further follow up, we would prefer to do this face to face or over the phone – but a text message can still be a useful prompt for a patient to contact the surgery to arrange this.”

Earlier this year, the Medical Defence Union reminded members that text messages as well as emails are specifically covered by the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which place restrictions on how unsolicited direct marketing by electronic mail is carried out. In a GP practice, patients must be given a simple opportunity to decline contact about future services both at the time their details are collected, and in future messages.

* Leahy D, Lyons A, Dahm M, et al. Use of text messaging in general practice: a mixed methods investigation on GPs’ and patients’ views. Br J Gen Pract, 25 September 2017, bjgp17X693065. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp17X693065.

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