People receive texts from restaurants when their table is ready, from airlines if flights are delayed, and from utility companies when their power bill is due. However, for patient access, texting protocol is very much in the early stages.

“Healthcare marketing innovation, many times, is behind banking, hospitality, and other industries,” says John Woerly, RHIA, CHAM, FHAM, principal director of Accenture Healthcare Practice in Indianapolis.

Outdated technology is one obstacle, although most newer electronic medical record (EMR) systems include e-communication capabilities. “It’s now a matter of implementing this technology and doing it in such a way that patients have a positive experience,” Woerly explains.

Registrars cannot just text a patient; they have to get consent first. This is but one example of the multiple compliance requirements hospitals must consider with digital communications. “We must first obtain and document the patient’s preferred methods of contact,” Woerly notes. Next, registrars must document that the patient gave permission to receive texts. The number to send the texts to must be entered into the system. “All of this must be validated at the point of scheduling, registration, or check-in,” Woerly adds.

Just entering the patient’s cellphone number in the registration system can be a hurdle. Older legacy EMRs may lack data fields for this information, so such numbers cannot be entered.

“However, most of the newer EMRs have data fields to capture a variety of phone numbers and email addresses,” Woerly says.

Even if all systems are a go — consent obtained, cellphone number documented, and all information validated — patient preference has to be factored in.

“A brochure explaining digital options for text and email and the type of messages that a patient might receive would be a very nice touch,” Woerly offers. Registrars could give this information to patients as part of a package that includes other standard forms and details. Facilities could post the information posting it on their websites. Also essential: The patient must be able to opt out at any time.

“This would, hopefully, decrease annoyance involving such communications in the future,” Woerly says.

Patients need a quick and easy way to stop receiving texts from the hospital, just as with other industries. Patients should be able to opt out by sending a reply text, contact patient access by email or phone, or change contact preferences in the online patient portal. Otherwise, a flood of well-meaning but unwanted texts can quickly become a source of dissatisfaction.

“As we all get multiple texts each day, it is essential that we don’t overload the patient with unnecessary information,” Woerly advises. Most registrars are hard at work adding home, work, cellphone, and email contacts for each patient. This raises an important question. “What is being done with that data?” Woerly asks.

One interesting possibility is to go beyond the basics of registration. Hospitals could offer patients personalized information that is meant just for them. For instance, messaging could give patients a heads-up about prenatal, heart health, or diabetes education offered by the hospital.

“I’m not sure many healthcare organizations are fully using such capabilities to ‘push out’ messaging to market their services, educate the public, and to gain market differentiation,” Woerly says.

Such texts would convey the bigger picture: that the hospital is not only tech-savvy, but also patient-centric. “This is a great opportunity to provide personalized care and increase the patient’s experience,” Woerly adds.