Are Smartphones and Texting Helpful in Disasters?
Technology is so pervasive in our society that when a disaster strikes the system failures affect every aspect of our lives; including our ability to receive appropriate medical treatment. Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example of what could go wrong – widespread and prolonged power outages, hospital evacuations, the closing of the financial markets, mass transportation disruptions, highway and airport shutdowns, and disruptions to routine life. In such situations, can technology help hospitals and clinics care for the overwhelming number of patients that need assistance while experiencing personnel shortages? The Smartphone is a modern technology marvel, spearheaded by Apple with Google and the rest following, that could help compensate for the high ratio of patients to healthcare personnel during a natural disaster.
Unlike desktop computers or fax machines that require a continuous power supply, smartphones are compact packages of computing, camera, and communication powered by a battery. Even though the communication networks could go down during hurricanes, these outages typically would not last more than a few minutes since they are built for higher reliability. Although the mobile networks may experience temporary disruption due to their capacity limitations, public or private WiFi hotspots could help fill in the connectivity gap while the system is adjusting to the increase in use.
A New Type of Communication on the Scene
Care coordination always starts with communication. Face to face communication is the best in disasters to triage patients quickly. However, in a catastrophe, physicians and particularly specialists are in such high demand as the patient volumes surge that many neighborhood hospitals cannot reach them. They just cannot be in so many places at the same time. Moreover, the disaster could limit or prevent their mobility. The best solution in such situations is a tool that will facilitate communication between physicians and nurses by providing quick access to patient health information regardless of their location.
Unlike phone calls, Mobile texting (SMS) provides the ability to participate in multiple conversations with multiple nurses at the same time. SMS with attachments is a godsend to healthcare. A nurse could take a picture of a wound as well as a picture of the medical record and send it to a waiting physician at the other end in seconds. This reduces care coordination time and helps reduce the serious adverse patient events that can occur due to poor communication. EMRs and HIEs are excellent tools for care continuum. However, these tend to overwhelm providers especially during times of disasters when there is a surge in the patient population. SMS provides the necessary help when doctors need it the most.
Ideal Secure Communication Platform
All of this is ideal for providing on the spot communication. However, the big elephant in the room is HIPAA privacy and security rules and the Joint Commission directive on SMS. These prevent providers from communicating over SMS any Protected Health Information (PHI) which includes pretty much anything related to the patient. SMS is deemed not secure because there is no authentication, encryption, and audibility of messages exchanged. Smartphone apps such as qliqSOFT’s qliqConnect comply with regulations and provide the most natural form of care coordination – texting with attachments.