Can you reach patients by cell, text, e-mail?

Many are requesting it

In the past, when they needed contact information for patients, registrars typically obtained an address and home telephone number and their job was done. But these days, many patients would rather be reached on their cell phone or via e-mail or text messages.

Patient access leaders at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago are in the process of implementing an automated system to allow patients to designate if they want an appointment reminder for outpatient diagnostic testing.

"Many reminder messaging systems provide only one type of reminder for the patient," says Michael F. Sciarabba, MPH, CHAM, the hospital's director of patient access services. "We thought the ability for the patient to decide their preference was crucial to improving patient satisfaction."

The system allows patients to decide what kind of reminder they want. They can choose to be contacted by phone, voicemail, text, or e-mail.

"Although we are in the implementation phase, we have already instructed our staff to work to obtain e-mail addresses," says Sciarabba. "Many patients expect us to ask, and readily provide their information."

Others want an explanation as to how this information will be used. In general, staff respond by stating, "We are working to improve communications with our patients." Patients can be given examples of outpatient appointment reminders, on-line obstetrics pre-registration, on-line account management, and community event reminders.

"Cell phones are the most common form of communication, so we have expanded the ability to have more than one phone number listed," says Sciarabba. "We have changed our script in asking the patient, 'What is the best number to reach you?'"

A growing number of patients — about 50% — at St. Francis Health Center in Topeka, KS, prefer to be reached by cell phone, reports patient access manager Barb Shields, CPC, CPC-H, CHAM.

"We have noticed a marked increased in this request during the past year," says Shields. "A growing number of patients are also asking if they can be e-mailed. We get that request about once per week."

Registrars ask patients, "What is the best way to contact you?" Most often, patients give their cell phone number. "We always try the home phone first, then the cell phone if it is listed," says Shields. "We have several patients that prefer cell phone, so we indicate the account as such."

St. Francis is currently looking into the feasibility of contacting patients via e-mail. However, Shields says she doesn't think that e-mails or texts will replace the reminder phone system anytime soon. "The biggest challenge with e-mails and texts is the cost associated, and also, being compliant with HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]," she says.

Katie M. Davis, director of patient financial services at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, says that obtaining valid, current contact information for patients is a key area of focus for her department.

"Having the incorrect information can hamper follow-up calls from physicians and nursing staff," she explains. "Any calls regarding patient satisfaction cannot be made. With an incorrect address, any insurance questions or billing follow-up cannot be completed."

The department is currently collecting cell phone numbers as another method for contacting the patient.

Staff use a script to help patients understand the importance of being able to contact them. The script begins with, "We are committed to your safety and to ensuring that we record your information correctly."

Patients in the ED are told that a correct phone number and address needs to be on file, in case the physician needs to contact them regarding any test results.

"When dealing with the address, we are sure to clarify the apartment or lot number if there is one, the telephone number and area code, and the zip code," says Davis.

[For more information, contact: Katie M. Davis, Director, Patient Financial Services, Carolinas Medical Center, Charlotte, NC. Phone: (704) 512-7181. E-mail: Katie.Davis@carolinashealthcare.org; Michael F. Sciarabba, MPH, CHAM, Director, Patient Access Services, Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657. Phone: (773) 296-5071. E-mail: michael.sciarabba@advocatehealth.com.]