Minnesota health system sends patients text messages in Somali and Hmong

Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare is catering to its patient population's cultural needs by sending out reminders about appointments and prescriptions via text messages in four languages — English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong.

The health system, located in St. Paul, Minn., noticed a need for communication in patients' native languages, especially via text. Patients who do not speak English are frequently uncomfortable with phone calls, and sending out reminders over text allows patients to easily store and understand information, according to a news release.

Brandon Daniell, the president and co-founder of Dialog Health, which provided the text messaging service, says the idea started in 2011 when a physician complained to one of his colleagues about a lack of communication with patients before surgery. A patient had come in to a scheduled surgery and had eaten breakfast, which interfered with the anesthesia. The physician said he wished he could have sent a text the night before to remind the patient or the patient's parents not to eat or drink before the surgery, Mr. Daniell says.

"If my airline can text me to remind me that my flight is at such and such a gate at such and such a time, why can't my doctor text me?" Mr. Daniell says. "Or why can't I text my doctor?"

Dialog Health, based in Nashville, Tenn., initially provided the service in English and Spanish, but expanded the offerings to Somali and Hmong because of the large populations who speak those languages in the St. Paul area, Mr. Daniell says. Minnesota has a large Somali refugee population, partially because of robust public services, according to St. Paul-based Macalester College. Minnesota also has the second-highest Hmong population of any state, according to the U.S. Census bureau. The texts are automated through Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare's EHR system, synced with the patient's schedule and reminding him or her to come in for appointments, surgeries and to pick up medications.

It also helps with patient engagement. If a patient responds "No" to a text asking if he or she has picked up a prescription, the staff will contact that patient. It reallocates staff efforts from making dozens of phone calls into speaking with patients that need communication, he says.

The texting service requires users to opt-in and allows the health system to expand communication to the rest of family. Because most of the patients served at Gillette are minors, the texts allow the health system to draw in a family member who may not speak as much English through the texts to communicate more efficiently. Plus, it engages the patients with their own devices rather than asking them to learn to use a new portal.

"Almost every family that comes to Gillette enters our facilities with a mobile phone in their pocket or purse," says Tim Getsay, vice president of performance and information management at Gillette. "When families receive information via text they can carry it with them and refer to it as needed. We want to be as helpful as we can to all of our patients regardless of which language they speak."

 

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