CMS Clarifies Position on Use of Text Messages in Healthcare

In November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) explained in emails to healthcare providers that the use of text messages in healthcare is prohibited due to concerns about security and patient privacy.

SMS messages are not secure. The CMS was concerned that the use of text messages in healthcare will lead to the exposure of sensitive patient data and could threaten the integrity of medical records. While this is understandable as far as SMS messages are concerned, many secure messaging applications satisfy all the requirements of HIPAA – e.g. transmission security, access and authentication controls, audit controls, and safeguards to ensure the integrity of PHI.

The use of secure messaging platforms was raised with the CMS by some hospitals; however, the position of the CMS, based on the emails, appeared to be a total ban on the use of text messages in healthcare, even the use of secure messaging platforms.

In the emails, the CMS said, “After meeting with vendors regarding these [secure messaging] products, it was determined they cannot always ensure the privacy and confidentiality of PHI of the information being transmitted. This resulted in the no texting determination.”

In December, the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) published an article questioning the stance of the CMS. HCCA said in its Report on Medicare Compliance, that at least two hospitals had received emails from the CMS explaining all forms of text messaging were prohibited.

Nina Youngstrom, Managing Editor of the Report on Medicare Compliance, said in the article that several compliance officers and healthcare attorneys were horrified about the position of the CMS. One attorney said a total ban would be “Like going back to the dark ages.”

CMS explained that concern about text messages in healthcare was not just about transmission security. There was the potential for a lack of access controls on the senders’ and receivers’ devices, stored data may not necessarily be secure and encrypted, and the privacy of patients is not guaranteed. Another concern was information transmitted via text messages also needs to be entered into the patient record and made available for retrieval.

Last year, the Joint Commission relaxed its ban on the use of text messages in healthcare for sending patient orders, only to later backtrack and reinstate the ban. The Joint Commission’s current position is the use of text messaging in healthcare is permitted, provided a secure messaging platform is used. However, the ban on the use of text messages for sending orders for patient care remains in place.

The CMS appeared to be saying no to all forms of text messaging, even though a large percentage of hospitals have switched over to secure text messaging platforms and are finally replacing their outdated pagers. Such a ban would therefore not be too dissimilar to implementing a ban on email, given how text messaging is so extensively used in healthcare.

A recent survey conducted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) confirms this. In its survey of 788 healthcare professionals, 45% of pharmacists and 35% percent of nurses said texting was used in their facilities. 53% said there was a policy in place prohibiting the use of text messages for patient orders, but despite the Joint Commission ban, 12% said texting patient orders was allowed – 8% only when a secure platform was used and 3% said text messages were permitted under any circumstances.

CMS Confirms The Use of Text Messages in Healthcare is Permitted

On December 28, 2017, a month after the emails were sent, the CMS sent a memo clarifying its position on the use of text messages in healthcare, confirming there is not a total ban in place.

The CMS explained that the ban on the use of all forms of text messaging, including secure text messaging systems, remains in place for orders by physicians or other health care providers. “The practice of texting orders from a provider to a member of the care team is not in compliance with the Conditions of Participation (CoPs) or Conditions for Coverage (CfCs),” specifically stating §489.24(b) and §489.24(c) apply.

Order entries should be made by providers using Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE), or via hand written orders. The CMS explained that, “An order if entered via CPOE, with an immediate download into the provider’s electronic health records (EHR), is permitted as the order would be dated, timed, authenticated, and promptly placed in the medical record.”

The CMS accepts that text messages are an important means of communication in healthcare, and that text messages are now essential for effective communication between care team members. However, in order to comply with the CoPs and CfCs, healthcare organizations must use and maintain text messaging systems/platforms that are secure.

Those platforms must encrypt messages in transit and healthcare organizations are required to assess and minimize the risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI as required by HIPAA. The CMS also explained that “It is expected that providers/organizations will implement procedures/processes that routinely assess the security and integrity of the texting systems/platforms that are being utilized, in order to avoid negative outcomes that could compromise the care of patients.”

The stance of the CMS is therefore aligned with that of the Joint Commission. Secure text messaging platforms can be used in healthcare, just not for texting orders. Even though secure text messaging meet HIPAA requirements for privacy and security, the ban remains in place over concerns about inputting orders sent by text messages into the EHR. CPOE is still the preferred method of entry to ensure accuracy.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.