Safeguarding security: 4 tactics for secure clinical communication and collaboration

I had the honor of speaking at the 2016 Becker’s Hospital Review Annual CIO/HIT + Revenue Cycle Summit, discussing the elements needed to truly secure clinical communications with some of the best minds in the healthcare world. With a number of recent high profile news stories announcing ransomware attacks in hospitals and health systems, security and the ability to secure clinical information is top of mind for many.

Those who oversee organizational data and IT systems recognize the importance of securing communication channels containing ePHI as they build a unified communications strategy. While security and regulatory mandates are essential elements of a clinical communication strategy, to create a truly successful strategy, the needs of those who provide care: physicians, nurses, therapists and others on the care team – in any setting – at any time – must be addressed flawlessly and securely.

To do so, there a few tactics to keep in mind:

Understand what the HIPAA Security Rule actually states – There’s been a lot of confusion in the industry when it comes to HIPAA compliance and communication. I often notice that many organizations think this is all about secure text messaging, which is incomplete. The Security Rule never speaks to a particular technology or communications modality, application or device. It is technology neutral.

HIPAA compliance is about the system of physical, administrative and technical safeguards that your organization puts in place to to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of all ePHI it creates, receives, maintains or transmits. Because of this, there is no such thing as a HIPAA-compliant app.

Understand care team dynamics – Care team members are mobile and they employ workflows to receive communication based upon situational variables such as origin, purpose, urgency, day, time, call schedules, patient and more. The variables determine who should be contacted and how to do so for every communications event.

For this reason, third parties (hospital switchboards and answering services) and disparate technologies are used in organizations’ clinical communication processes. Understanding this variety of technologies and actors is key to accurately assessing your organization’s compliance risk. And, coming up with strategies to effectively address that risk is key.

Secure text messaging is essential, but it’s not sufficient – While secure messaging is an essential component of your overall strategy, it’s not sufficient because:

  1. it requires the sender to always know who it is they need to reach—by name.
  2. it requires the recipient to always be available to other care team members 24/7.

These requirements are inconsistent with the complexity inherent in communication workflows that enable time-sensitive care delivery processes, because they don’t address the situational variables I described above.

Secure messaging is only one piece of what should be a much larger communications strategy—one that should address clinician workflows and multi-modal communications channels for all care team members.

Your goal should be to enable more effective care team collaboration – Organizations often focus on achieving HIPAA-compliance. This is a flawed objective. The focus should be on achieving more effective care team collaboration. If this is done effectively, achieving HIPAA-compliance will come along for the ride.

Six essential capabilities – An effective secure clinical communications and collaboration strategy will include the following six elements.

  1. It will facilitate communication-driven workflows that enable time-sensitive care delivery processes. An example of a communications-driven workflow is stroke diagnosis and treatment. When a patient with stroke symptoms presents in the ED, one of the first things the ED physician does is initiate a communications workflow to contact the neurologist covering that ED at that moment in time, while simultaneously notifying and mobilizing a stroke team to complete a CT scan to determine if it is safe to administer tPA, the drug that arrests the stroke. Time is critical. Healthcare is chock full of these kinds of workflows, executed every day in every hospital by the hundreds and thousands.
  1. It will provide technology that automatically identifies and provides an immediate connection to the right care team member for any given clinical situation—this is nursing’s greatest need! Your strategy should be to bypass third parties and eliminate all the manual tools and processes used to figure out who’s in what role right now given the situation at hand. Ignoring this need means you won’t achieve adoption, which means your organization will still be at risk.
  1. It should extend beyond any department and the four walls of the hospital. It should enable cross-organizational communication workflows. This is increasingly important under value-based care where care team members must collaborate across interdependent organizations to deliver better care.
  1. It should secure the creation, transmission and access of ePHI across all communication modalities—not just text messaging. Enough said!
  1. It should integrate with your other clinical systems to leverage the data within those systems to facilitate new communication workflows. This is key to enabling “real-time healthcare.”
  1. It should provide analytics to monitor your communication processes and continuously improve those processes over time.

With these capabilities in place, secure clinical communication simply becomes another positive result of implementing a broader care team collaboration strategy, designed to address clinical efficiency and improve patient care delivery.

Building an effective care team collaboration strategy: 4 focal points

Part 2 of a 3-part series in conjunction with our nurse leadership webinar series.

The need to unify physicians, nurses and other care team members through effective communication at the point of care is growing in significance. According to a 2015 Gartner report, 80 percent of providers report deploying fragmented communication technologies, which results in degraded care team communication and collaboration.

Collaboration is both a process and an outcome. It affects the patient experience, outcomes and care occurring across a variety of settings in an increasingly complex and mobile environment.

To resolve the fragmented and non-secure communication encountered in healthcare, true care team collaboration is dependent on consolidating disparate technologies into a single solution capable of directly addressing the communication obstacles degrading patient care today.

To some, this may sound like an unachievable goal, but with a strategic plan focused in areas that facilitate workflow processes and communication leading to improved patient care, it is attainable.

You may wonder, where do I even begin? Many organizations, in response to specific challenges, have deployed single-point technologies that provide only incremental gains. True communication and collaboration requires a comprehensive strategy, and to begin you must carefully evaluate your entire communication landscape. You’ll need to assess your current technologies, HIPAA compliance plan, near miss or sentinel event occurrences, nursing time to reach providers and consult notifications procedures – all of which will highlight your communication strengths and weaknesses.

Developing a comprehensive care team collaboration strategy spans four major areas of consideration. Failure to address any one of these areas may leave you with an incomplete solution. Each organization is unique, certainly, but departments and organizations must work together to create an environment ripe for collaboration.

  • Clinical – Mobile technologies are becoming more prevalent in healthcare settings, thus the need to leverage these technologies to facilitate secure communication amongst the care team is becoming increasingly important. A clinical communications solution should enable communication-driven workflows to facilitate timely care team communication. The solution should facilitate direct conversations among nurses and physicians via the preferred mode of contact – be it a mobile phone, pager, email or office land line. By triaging incoming calls and applying personalized algorithms for call placement, care team members reach the correct physician without searching through call schedules.
  • Operational – Once your plan is in place, bringing it to life warrants consideration and considerable forethought. A well-defined adoption strategy will be key to a successful implementation. Clinical champions help drive decisions and engage end users. Leadership engagement is often the most essential driver of adoption of any initiative, plan or policy. You should also consider and plan around timelines, specific tasks and resource requirements.
  • Technical – To achieve success, understanding and addressing technical infrastructure is a must. The strength of your Wi-Fi and cellular networks should be evaluated. Does your organization have a device strategy or do you have a BYOD policy? Do you desire integration with clinical systems and is the solution you are considering interoperable?
  • Financial – In any financial consideration, ultimate ROI and total cost of ownership are needed to justify approaches. When you close communication gaps across the extended care team to facilitate patient care collaboration, you can potentially improve referral revenue, decrease readmissions and avoid penalty costs. The ability to do mobile charge capture at the bedside, and to quickly and fully document exam and procedure details at the point of care will result in revenue recognition and improved cash flow for physicians.

There is no short list of considerations when it comes to building an effective care team collaboration strategy. However, if you focus on these four areas, gain support of leadership and identify a solution that hits these marks, you will be well on your way to effectively addressing your communication and collaboration needs.


Interested in learning more? Read part 1 and part 3 of this series on nurse leadership in care team collaboration.

Nurses need innovative care team collaboration technology

Part 1 of a 3-part series in conjunction with our nurse leadership webinar series.

Six years ago, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), formerly the Institute of Medicine (IOM), recommended that nurses lead inter-professional collaboration and healthcare delivery improvement and redesign. They noted that nurses are uniquely positioned to do this since, given the care setting, they are quite often the primary patient caregiver. As such, they serve as the virtual linchpin of care—connecting the various care providing professions while coordinating patient care across the entire care team. Toward that end, nurses are responsible for over 90% of physician communications while directing over 80% of their own communications to the broader care team.

While some inroads have been made in regard to this IOM recommendation, there are formidable challenges impeding significant progress. As the industry transitions to value-based-care, nurses are being held increasingly more accountable for patient outcomes and experience. Paradoxically, they are concurrently being asked to perform more indirect and non-patient-care tasks which reduce the amount of time at the patient bedside—one of the strongest predictors of positive patient outcomes and experience.

One such activity is care team communication.

Specifically, nurses have reported that difficulty communicating with the care team has decreased direct patient care time. One survey study found that 75% of nurse respondents reported wasting valuable care time just attempting to communicate with physicians and other care team members. In part, as 50% of the respondents acknowledged, this is because they are unaware of the right care team member to contact for the clinical situation at hand. The latter explains why the majority of physicians reported being frequently erroneously contacted when not the right physician for the situation.

These recalcitrant obstacles to care team communication and collaboration have served to delay patient care and prolong patient wait times. No one is more acutely aware of this than the nurse.

Nurses quite often find themselves waiting for physicians to return phone calls/pages while their patient needlessly suffers. As the nurse struggles to coordinate care, no one is more cognizant of the impact of missed care or delayed transitions on the patient and the patient’s family. Moreover, no one is more handicapped by the limits of fragmented communication technologies that have not successfully overcome these challenges because they only address a small component of the overall problem. And no one is in more need, than the nurse, for innovative technology that is able to immediately connect the right care team members to facilitate timely collaboration.

The good news is that this technology is now available. However, when evaluating the various care team collaboration platforms, it is important to avoid common pitfalls. Here are a few guiding principles to keep in mind:

  • While secure messaging is a salient feature of the platform, it is not wholly sufficient to address these communication obstacles since it is dependent upon two flawed assumptions.
    1. The recipient, such as the physician, must desire to be contacted at all times for all situations every day of the week.
    2. The sender, for example, the nurse, knows who to contact in every single situation.
  • All of the care team must be on the same platform. As the IOM noted, “True inter-professional collaboration can be accomplished only in concert with other health professionals, not within the nursing profession alone.” This holds true for any other profession.
  • Most importantly, the technology must be purposefully designed to overcome the known referenced obstacles. To do this, it must be able to automatically identify and provide immediate connection to the right care team member for that particular clinical situation. This type of complex logic requires that for every single communication by every care team member, the contextual variables of the particular message must be analyzed in real time to ensure the communication is routed to the correct individual.
  • The care team collaboration platform capabilities must transcend the walls of any one facility. Nurses, as well as physicians and other care team members, quite frequently need to contact team members who work in and across other facilities and locations. The platform must be able to support this communication and the intelligent routing capabilities must extend to provide immediate identification and connection to these care team members when needed.
  • Ultimately, the care team collaboration platform must have proven functionality to reduce communication cycle times. Reducing the time to connect and close the communication loop translates into care team efficiency and increased patient care time. As every nurse knows, this means speed to treatment, improved patient experience and improved patient outcomes.

Nurses are indeed perfectly positioned to lead inter-professional collaboration and healthcare delivery improvement. However, it is critical that they are provided with the technology that will allow them to overcome all the challenges this entails.

Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past—providing nurses with inadequate technology in response to which, they must find a work around—increasing their effort and workload in the endeavor. Quite sincerely, healthcare improvement and reform depends on it.


Interested in learning more? Read part 2 and part 3 of this series on nurse leadership in care team collaboration.