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August 29, 2016

WhatsApp might become the new normal for doctor – patient communications

WhatsApp has become a permanent feature of the communication landscape in Brazil, even more now the instant messaging service has adopted end-to-end encryption. 90 percent of the Brazilian doctors use the service to communicatie with patients. In the US the percentage is much lower, but a breakthrough may be at hand.

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In China 50 percent of doctors use the Chinese version WeChat to communicatie with their patients, according to Cello Health Insight. In the US en the UK the percentages are much lower (4 and 2 percent, respectively), but this might change now the Facebook daughter is improving its encryption features, according to an article on Fortune.

Messaging service WhatsApp announced in April that it would adopt end-to-end encryption. This led to Brazilian officials briefly shutting down the app on two separate occasions this year. Other law enforcement agenies worldwide expressed their concern, fearing that better encryption will make WhatsApp interesting for criminals and terrorists.

Strong privacy controls

But it’s the strong privacy controls that makes doctors in Brazil turn to the app. Also, the the app played a key role in tracking the country’s Zika virus outbreak, as doctors used it to share symptoms they were seeing as well as babies’ CT scans. And as the And as the company flaunts its commitment to encryption, US and UK doctors might also embrace WhatsApp.

So far, U.S. doctors’ uptake has been slower mostly to adopt WhatsApp, out of concerns about violating health information privacy regulations known as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). But while WhatsApp doesn’t market itself specifically for health care, it’s just as HIPAA-compliant as other doctor-specific apps—if not more so—if used properly. That at least believes Katie Kenney, an attorney for Polsinelli specializing in health data privacy.

WhatsApp is one of 132 companies offering secure messaging (and, as a bonus, it costs nothing). Many of these declare themselves HIPAA-compliant but actually aren’t, according to Extension Healthcare, which makes communication technology for hospitals. There is no official ‘HIPAA-compliant’ sticker to be slapped on apps.  An app could be HIPAA-compliant one day and not the next.

Compliance is a constant process of making sure that data is secure often depending less on the technology itself than on whether physicians using it are taking required precautions. For example protecting the electronic device itself (such as by using a password lock) and establishing an authentication system to verify the person they are messaging is actually the right patient before sending any sensitive data – such as by asking patients to sign a form indicating the phone number attached to their WhatsApp account.

 WhatsApp distinguishes itself with its end-to-end encryption—preventing messages containing personal health information from being intercepted or exposed (even WhatsApp itself can’t see them). It’s about one of the best safeguards you can have in place, says Kenny.  There are signs of pent-up demand among doctors for a safe, efficient way to monitor and treat patients remotely, and health systems are eagerly eyeing WhatsApp and its health-focused competitors as a potential solution.

Preventive care makes WhatsApp attractive

The American health care system, Fortune writes, continues to shift towards compensating doctors for keeping patients healthier overall, rather than paying them per appointment and how many tests they order. That makes messaging increasingly attractive to physicians. They can give instant advise and can reach more patients all while on-the-go in a busy day—without worrying whether they’re getting paid for their time. Patients don’t have to make an appointment for every question they have.

Not everybody is convinced about the benefits WhatsApp can bring though. Barry Chaiken, president of DocsNetwork and an expert in public health and data management, believes there are questions over how a WhatsApp exchange would be documented with the rest of a patient’s electronic medical record (EHR), and if the conversation would be admissible during a malpractice lawsuit.

Also there is still uncertainty about which messaging apps are acceptable under privacy laws. The Health and Human Services department’s Office for Civil Rights, which regulates HIPAA, is developing guidance on text messages in response to questions.

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