SMS for healthcare: Engaging patients while staying HIPAA compliant

Healthcare symbols centered around a heart

For most healthcare providers, “running a business” was not high on their list of big goals or dreams. They typically went into healthcare for patients, not for profit and loss statements or marketing plans.

But operating a healthcare business in 2024 means optimizing the practice to stay financially healthy while providing top-notch patient care. And staying financially healthy means connecting with patients to boost engagement with every contact.

Elevate patient engagement with SMS messaging

In a recent episode of Bandwidth’s State of Messaging Podcast, Kim Howland, Sr. Vice President of Product at Rectangle Health, a healthcare technology company that provides a texting platform, suggested that “a lot of what you’re doing to provide patient care is the business side” of the practice.

“You need to make sure your schedule is full. You have to make sure you have enough staff to provide care. You have to make sure you get paid. I mean, you have to make sure your patients in general get a really good experience.”

One of the best ways for healthcare practices to boost patient engagement is through SMS messaging. Patients show a clear preference for practices that communicate via text; one survey showed that 55% of patients will switch providers if their communication channel preferences are unmet.

Howland says she’s even seen a survey that showed “85% of patients prefer texting over email or phone calls.”

Despite the advantages of text over other channels, healthcare providers could remain hesitant to engage the channel, in large part due to the risk of non-compliance with HIPAA.

But Howland sees huge opportunities for providers to engage patients through texting that can elevate patient engagement and care to a whole new level.

Win-win for patient and provider schedules

SMS Messaging can automate scheduling and give patients more control over their own healthcare experience—and free up a staff member who previously made individual scheduling and reminder phone calls.

For example, because texting is asynchronous, providers can send appointment reminders that patients can respond to at their leisure—after work, for example. And when patients can’t make their scheduled appointments, providers can give them options for rescheduling and even fill the empty slot.

“When the practice management system allows it, we can actually put the scheduling into the hands of the patient,” says Howland. “So we can have the patients request appointments for days and times that they want and drop that right into the schedule. Frees up staff time and makes the patient have some ownership over that.

“We’ve shown that we can get back about thirty percent of those patients [who] will then show up for their appointments, which is better for the practice, better for the patient.”

When patients can’t make their appointments, the practice can automatically text its wait list and give patients waiting for appointments the opportunity to take the unused slot.

Explore the latest industry developments

See the exclusive State of Messaging report for the latest survey results, use cases, trend analysis and more.

Protecting the practice’s bottom line

Howland also sees providers use SMS messaging to remind patients of outstanding balances. “It sounds crazy, but if you can just send those messages to patients once a week or once a month, you can see a pretty big business impact.”

One practice that uses the Rectangle Health platform went from $8 million of accounts receivable to $3 million after giving patients the ability to pay via text. “What we find is that it’s not that patients don’t want to pay, but you need to make it easier to pay,” Howland says.

When practices streamline scheduling and payments, the patients and the providers win.

Managing protected health information (PHI)

Finally, Howland sees huge opportunities to improve overall patient outcomes through SMS messaging.

But providers can be understandably concerned about violating HIPAA privacy rules by mismanaging protected health information (PHI).

Fortunately, HIPAA-compliant text messaging platforms, such as Rectangle Health, incorporate the safeguards necessary to meet the HIPAA Security Rule for PHI.

Some of the most common ways Rectangle Health customers use SMS messaging with PHI include:

  1. Pull patients back into the practice: For patients with chronic health problems, frequent provider appointments can make a huge difference in managing illness and outcomes. SMS messaging can also be useful in reminding patients to get regular preventive tests and screenings.
  2. Provide education materials: With 80% of internet users accustomed to looking up health information on their phones, sending links to properly reviewed and vetted online resources can help empower patients to take charge of their own health.
  3. Remind patients to take medication: It’s easy to forget to take medication, especially if it’s a short course, such as an antibiotic. A text reminder can improve adherence and help patients monitor supply and refill when appropriate.
  4. Complete forms prior to an appointment: By sending a link to an online form ahead of the appointment, patients can fill out paperwork in advance. Howland points to parents of young kids filling out forms at their leisure. “You don’t want to hold a squirmy toddler in a white room!” she says.

Howland points out that some providers may still be hesitant to send PHI via text, even when communication providers and platforms can assure the information remains encrypted. They may worry that they can’t adequately manage patient opt-ins or opt-outs or that staff may send PHI inappropriately.

Rectangle Health allows each practice to choose what level of texts they can send—from simple scheduling to bill pay options to education and medication reminders.

Overall, Howland reports that “healthcare is catching up” with consumers who want to do more of their business on their phones. SMS messaging can be a vital piece of empowering patients to take charge of their own schedules—and their health.

We are not lawyers. Consult with your legal counsel to understand how this applies to your organization

The information provided in this document does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advance; instead, the information is for general informational purposes only.