8 ways hospitals are using text messaging to navigate the pandemic

COVID-19 has forced hospitals to pull out all the stops in the fight against the coronavirus.

This has included their efforts to financially recover from the pandemic; respond effectively to rapidly evolving and increasing challenges; keep patients, staff, and their communities as safe as possible; and now deliver the vaccines that could bring an end to the pandemic. Throughout it all, we've seen hospitals leveraging text messaging to communicate about a wide range of vital operations, care, and safety issues. Texting has been an invaluable tool for many hospitals over the past year, helping them enhance coordination and response efforts.

Here are eight of the ways text messaging is helping hospitals navigate the pandemic.

1. Case volume
The American Hospital Association recently issued a fact sheet calling for more funding for the Provider Relief Fund. The AHA's reasoning included the following: "The pandemic has put severe financial pressure on hospitals, including, but not limited to: the astronomical costs of preparing for a surge of COVID-19 patients; added expenses due to supply chain and labor market disruptions; months of essential hospital revenue being erased due to the combination of a forced shutdown and slowdown of regular operations for nonemergent care; and the high cost of treating COVID-19 cases, which tend to be incredibly resource intensive."

The AHA then went on to note that it projected that hospitals' and health systems' financial losses would amount to more than $323 billion through the end of 2020.

It's not surprising that hospitals with text messaging capabilities are leaning heavily on texting to schedule cases and generate much-needed revenue. Text messaging is being used to help patients reschedule cases that needed to be postponed over the past year; schedule more routine services, such as lab tests, imaging, rehabilitation, and physical therapy; and drive recall programs for services such as mammography and colon cancer and prostate screening.

Texting is also helping "unfreeze" patients who are hesitant to come to the hospital for services because of fear about contracting COVID-19. These texts explain to patients what the hospital is doing to best ensure their safety (more on this below) and then provide guidance and reminders leading up to appointments to reassure patients about safety and the importance of keeping their appointments.

2. Vaccine distribution
This is a newer way we're seeing hospitals use texting. Once COVID-19 vaccines received their emergency use authorizations, hospitals began informing staff and eligible recipients about plans concerning availability and distribution. Text messaging is being used to survey stakeholders about their willingness to receive the vaccine, provide links to information and education, and coordinate administration of vaccines.

We're also seeing hospitals use texting to help avoid wasting doses. The vaccines expire shortly after they are taken out of cold storage. In instances where hospitals have found themselves with extra doses following completion of scheduled vaccinations, texting is helping quickly find and schedule additional people eligible to receive the vaccine.

3. Protocol education
Hospitals have needed to make substantial changes to safety policies and procedures during the pandemic. Text messaging is helping inform and remind patients, staff, visitors, and vendors about such changes, which have included everything from wearing personal protective equipment to screening policy changes to revised waiting room policies.

4. Pre-screening questionnaire
In addition to informing stakeholders about changes to pre-screening policies and procedures, hospitals are using text messaging to help perform pre-screening. Two-way text messaging is being used to ask patients and visiting vendors if they are feeling well on the day of their appointments and reminding them to reschedule appointments if they are not feeling well or are taking care of someone who may be ill. Some hospitals are using texting to send hyperlinks that direct patients and vendors to online screening surveys.

5. Telehealth and virtual care
The use of telehealth has exploded over the past year as hospitals and other healthcare providers leaned on virtual services to better support stay-at-home and social distancing efforts, replicate face-to-face appointments, improve access, and ultimately deliver care services. Many hospitals have made text messaging an integral part of their telehealth programs, using texting to inform patients about the availability of telehealth services, schedule and remind patients about telehealth appointments, and initiate telehealth consultations.

6. Contact tracing
Contact tracing remains an essential step to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Hospitals have turned to texting to support their contact tracing efforts, sending automated text surveys to patients 7 days and 14 days following an in-person visit to their facility to ask whether patients had developed COVID-19 symptoms.

7. Loved ones and caretakers
To reduce exposure risk, most hospitals have implemented restrictions concerning loved ones and caretakers waiting inside facilities while patients receive care. Hospitals are using texting —including automated messaging — to provide loved ones and caretakers with real-time patient progress updates. Texting is also being used to inform them, along with transportation providers, when patients are ready for discharge, with these texts providing instructions on where drivers should go to pick up patients.

8. Staff support
Hospital staff are under pressure like never before. Not only are they risking their health — and that of their family members — by coming into work, but they are also facing staffing shortages, longer hours, and numerous challenges at home. Hospitals have turned to text messaging as a simple way to support and engage with their staff by sending uplifting messages, inspirational quotes, and reminders that their hard work and sacrifices are not going unnoticed. Hospitals are also using texting to inform staff of positive news, such as community donations, the first team member to receive the vaccine, and catered meals.

Newfound appreciation for text messaging
Prior to the pandemic, hospitals were increasingly implementing text messaging solutions and depending on texting to drive more of their communications. COVID-19 has further spurred usage of texting, and for good reasons: Texting is fast and affordable. More importantly, it's very effective, with a healthy majority of text messages being read within just minutes of their delivery and almost all text messages being read on the day they are received.

There's every reason to believe that hospitals will continue to leverage text messaging in the coming months to help them further overcome the many challenges brought on by the public health emergency.

Brandon Daniell is president and co-founder of Dialog Health, a cloud-based, two-way texting platform that enables vital information to be pushed to and pulled from patients and caregivers.

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