The media noted a trend of doctors connecting with patients through social media and texting as early as 2012. Doctors can respond to simple questions their patients send via email or text, and even analyze picture patients send, for example, of a surgical site in the healing process.
But even now with 2014 fast approaching, there are no official guidelines or rules from a medical communications institution detailing how to text with patients. The American Medical Association acknowledges benefits in using social media, but also warns doctors to protect patient privacy and “maintain appropriate boundaries” with patients.
And it can be a challenge for doctors. Texting has its own language and style, and length restrictions come into play as well. What might have been a five-minute spoken answer in the office needs to be distilled down into a line or two via text.
Doctors report being unsure how to phrase their messages and how to modulate their tones.
This is a new phenomenon and there’s no roadmap, but a few best practices have emerged. Patient surveys have helped. A new online survey designed to gauge patient preferences has yet to be published but will be presented at the mHealth Summit in Washington D.C. on December.
The survey was designed by Frederick Muench, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center who directed another study in a similar vein earlier this year.
Results from both surveys indicated that 98 percent of patients were potentially interested in using text messaging as a part of their continuing care strategy.
This type of “telemedicine” is increasingly popular, and could not only help patients connect to doctors quicker, but could save the healthcare system money in the long run by preventing unnecessary doctor’s visits; if a question can be answered in a one line text without a face to face meeting, so much the better.
“These tools are embedded in my work day,” said Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Kansas City. “This is something I do in between checkups. It’s much easier for me to shoot you an email and show you a blog post than it is to phone you back. That’s what old-school physicians are going to be doing, spending an hour at the end of the day” returning patients’ phone calls, she said.
Here’s what else Muench found:
1. Patients prefer statements, not questions.
2. Complete sentences are best.
3. They generally don’t like for doctors to use don’t use “text-ese,” like “LOL” or “wat.”
4. Surprisingly, they do like positive emoticons
5. Also, make sure grammar is correct.
Some of these may seem counterintuitive, like no to texting lingo but yes to emotes, but one central message does emerge. Texting is a casual form of communication, but the patient-provider relationship is still professional. Condensing but preserving what you would tell them in a face-to-face meeting should honor the subject matter.