How Text Messaging Can Enhance Communication with Caregivers

Population Health,Patient Satisfaction,mhealth,Text Messaging

sunglasses-1149212_1920.jpgTexting reigns supreme as a means of communication in the United States. Eighty-three percent of Americans own a cellphone, and three-quarters of the population text on a regular basis, according to the Pew Research Center. Thirty-one percent of those sourced for a 2011 Pew study noted that they prefer to receive texts as opposed to traditional phone calls. So, if the average American enjoys texting every day, shouldn’t hospitals and healthcare providers choose to communicate with patients via text?

That would make sense, but some healthcare organizations are still reluctant to pursue that route. In fact, in 2012, only 9 percent of cellphone owners received healthcare information via a text message, but this is quickly changing. 

Texting is an efficient and relatively inexpensive means of communication, and with the proper texting platform, providers can safely communicate with patients in a rapid and effective fashion, delivering critical patient updates or important treatment reminders with little effort. One area where text messaging can have a dramatic impact is expanding communication to include a patient’s caregivers—individuals (usually loved ones) who provide care for sick and elderly family members. This population is huge, and according to the AARP, “an estimated 43.5 million adults in the United States have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child in the prior 12 months.” There are many benefits to enhancing communication with these caregivers. Done right, they can become an important extension of the care team and play a significant role in ensuring patients adhere to instructions and change behaviors. The following are two examples of how more directly involving caregivers in the communication flow can improve outcomes.

Episodic Communication

In situations where a patient requires a procedurewhether it’s diagnostic in nature (e.g., a colonoscopy) or a more intensive surgery (e.g., total joint replacement)it’s critical that caregivers are aware of and understand patient preparation and treatment instructions. Oftentimes, they are responsible for getting the patient to appointments on time and taking next steps such as filling prescriptions or making follow up appointments. Typically, communication of treatment plans is accomplished by doctors and nurses providing verbal instructions accompanied by a stack of papers. Anyone who has been in this situation knows how overwhelming this can be – particularly when you factor in the family’s emotional distress if their loved one is experiencing any pain or discomfort.

A text messaging platform with the capability to message both the patient and their caregivers – with the patient’s consent and in a HIPAA compliant manner – can supplement these instructions by prompting the caregiver with encounter specific education, instructions, and alerts at precisely the time it is most relevant. Confirming the caregiver has information, such as arrival times, when to make a follow up appointment, when to take a medication or, simply, who to call with questions, can be invaluable to ensuring that the patient takes the right steps at the right time.

Chronic Condition Management

For patients who are managing chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, there are ongoing activities that need to occurfrom monitoring condition specific indicators (e.g., blood pressure, blood glucose) to taking medications at the prescribed interval to eating right. For these patients, it is critical that they understand and adhere to their treatment plans to ensure their condition is appropriately managed. For providers who send periodic, condition specific text message alerts to their patients, including the caregivers in these ongoing communications can be beneficial. The caregivers, whether they live in the same house or are thousands of miles away, can check in with the patient to make sure they received the message, took the required action, or needed any questions or concerns to be addressed. This is a cost efficient and effective way of further reinforcing instructions and extending the reach of the care team. 

In today’s healthcare environment, there is a distinct focus on engaging patients in their care. As the population ages and more and more adult children, for example, have caregiving responsibility for their parents, the definition of patient engagement should be expanded to include these caregivers. Involving them in the ongoing flow of communication represents a great opportunity to improve outcomes. This is especially true when you consider that non-adherence is so widespread - with some 50 percent of patients in the U.S. affected -  and that miscommunication is at the root of most adherence problems.

Improving communication between patients and providers remains a critical success factor. Because most people prefer to communicate via text and it is a cost efficient and effective communication tool, healthcare providers should seize the opportunity to use it to improve communication with both patients and their caregivers.