Instant messaging services like WhatsApp can be a key tool for clinicians when responding to emergency situations, according to new official guidance on how to use them safely.
The guidance comes after doctors and nurses turned to instant communication channels to deal with emergency situations like the Croydon tram crash, Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks at London Bridge and the Manchester Arena.
“These new guidelines will help our doctors and nurses to make safe and effective use of technology”
While the guidelines recognise how useful instant messaging can be to support the delivery of care in a crisis, they also remind clinicians of the need to protect patient confidentiality and maintain comprehensive medical records.
“Instant messaging can have clinical utility but remember that the law places obligations on clinicians to protect patient confidentiality,” said the guidance.
It added: “If you are a clinician, you may also have to defend yourself again regulatory investigation if you have not taken sufficient steps to safeguard confidentiality.”
The guidance sets out simple steps staff should take including only using apps and other messaging tools that meet NHS encryption standards.
Clinicians receiving messages should not allow anyone else to access their device and ensure phones and tablets are password protected.
They should also disable message notifications that may pop up on screens when devices are locked to protect patient confidentiality.
The guidance also stresses the need to keep separate clinical records and delete the original message once advice or information has been formally recorded.
When it comes to the choice of app, the guidelines say clinicians should only turn to standalone instant messaging services if their organisation does not provide a suitable alternative.
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Security features identified as particularly important include the ability to delete messages remotely if the device is lost, stolen or passed on to another staff member, and the ability to verify that users at either end are indeed who they say they are.
While the document does not endorse any particular instant messaging tools, it does list security features provided by some of the most popular messaging apps - Whatsapp, Viber, Telegram and Signal.
The new guidance was published jointly by NHS England, NHS Digital, Public Health England, and the Department of Health and Social Care.
“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,” said Dr Simon Eccles, England’s chief clinical information officer for health and care.
”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,” he added.