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The doctor will text you now: Expanding patient access for all

From virtual reality to robot-assisted surgery, healthcare innovation is moving at an exciting pace. As we continue rewriting what is possible in medicine, we must also make high-quality care more accessible and equitable. To this end, healthcare organizations can leverage a near-ubiquitous technology: text messaging.

Here’s what healthcare organizations should know about the untapped potential of this function on our personal devices.

The smartphone gap

For many, the smartphone has become an essential fixture of everyday life. Aligning to this trend, healthcare organizations have rolled out mobile applications to connect with patients wherever, whenever. Meeting people where they are is key to effective care delivery—but doing so via smartphone remains unattainable for a number of patients.

According to Pew Research Center, nearly all adults in the U.S. own a cellphone of some kind, but 11% do not own a smartphone. Among those over age 65, this number rises to 29%. (Generational gaps in smartphone ownership are common among other countries with advanced economies, as well.) Additionally, there are significant differences in smartphone ownership by income, education and geographic region (e.g., rural versus urban). Acknowledging this gap, it is critical for healthcare organizations to identify additional methods of communication to engage all patients, especially those who do not own a cellphone.

Texts versus phone calls

So why is texting a tool worth using in healthcare? One survey found that 80% of American adults do not answer calls from unknown numbers on their cellphones. If an organization has a staffing shortage, it can quickly become unsustainable to make calls, leave voicemails and play “phone tag” trying to get ahold of patients. On the patients’ side, if their providers’ offices are inundated with phone calls (especially during COVID-19 surges), it may take longer for them to get through to someone on the other end of the line.

Conversely, studies indicate that 97–99% of texts to patients have a successful contact rate. Providers and patients—regardless of what type of mobile phone they have—can benefit from this reliable mode of communication, saving valuable time.

Benefits to providers and patients

Despite the popularity of texting in our everyday lives, there is room for its growth in healthcare settings. A survey from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) found that 68% of practices and other healthcare organizations text appointment reminders to patients. Roughly a quarter of organizations are missing out on this opportunity to reduce no-shows. Organizations with texting solutions can often integrate these with the electronic health record (EHR) and automate the appointment confirmation process. At a large provider practice or hospital, those efficiencies can make a big difference when multiplied over the course of a day.

Additionally, according to the MGMA survey, many organizations do not offer the ability to schedule or reschedule appointments via text message. Adding these capabilities could further reduce no-show rates and give patients with any kind of mobile phone a more convenient experience.

Beyond these administrative functions, organizations can use text messages to connect patients directly with their providers. Today there are solutions compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that enable provider organizations to send encrypted texts to patients with or without smartphones. While telehealth was a lifeline for many during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also inaccessible for those with technology-related barriers. Text message capabilities for patient–provider communications can help close some of these gaps while enabling modern, seamless interactions.

Today’s providers must account for a range of social circumstances to keep each patient at the center of care. With flexible solutions in place, healthcare organizations can help all of their patient populations thrive. Learn how Altera Digital Health is taking healthcare to new heights here.

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