A group of national NHS organisations has published new guidance for healthcare organisations using instant messaging channels.
NHS England, NHS Digital, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care have produced the guidance in an effort to strengthen best practice in using channels such as Whatsapp.
They said it is aimed at helping them and their staff make a judgement on how and when to use instant messaging safely in acute clinical settings, taking in to account data sharing and data privacy rules.
This follows increasing reports that NHS trusts are allowing the use of such channels, but in many cases failing to develop appropriate policies for their use. In August, a survey by mobile technology company CommonTime revealed that more than half of 136 trusts responding to a freedom of information request did not have a policy in place.
Among the steps the guidance highlights are only using apps and other messaging tools that meet the NHS encryption standard, and that staff should not allow anyone else to use their device.
In addition, they should disable message notifications on their device’s lock-screen to protect patient confidentiality, keep separate clinical records and delete the original messaging notes once any advice has been transcribed and attributed in the medical record.
Dr Simon Eccles, chief clinical information officer for health and care, said: “Helping people during a crisis like the Grenfell fire, demands a quick response and instant messaging services can be a vital part of the NHS toolkit.
“Health service staff are always responsible about how they use patients’ personal details and these new guidelines will help our doctors and nurses to make safe and effective use of technology under the most intense pressure.”
Among those involved in reviewing the guidance was Dr Helgi Johannsson, consultant in anaesthesia at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, who set up a major incident instant messaging group to help coordinate his hospital’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire. He said: “Fully encrypted instant messaging services can be a particularly useful communication tool in delivering care to people during a major incident.
“From the Westminster attack we learnt it was important not to overload the emergency care co-ordinators with offers of help, so with Grenfell we used instant messaging to help coordinate which staff should come in, who was needed where and plan the service for later on that day which vastly improved the care we were able to provide.
“These sensible guidelines will make the care of our patients safer through better communication by NHS staff.”
Governance and standards
The NHS has not endorsed any particular instant messaging tools. Instead, the guidance sets out what information governance issues need to be considered and what standards need to be met.
Dawn Monaghan, director of the Information Governance Alliance, emphasised that instant messaging should not be regarded as a substitute for the medical record, and it is important any advice received on those channels is added to the record, with the original messages deleted.
Image from Imperial College NHS Trust