In a world that’s increasingly dependent on email and text messages, it can be a challenge for hospitals and doctors to communicate while making sure that patients’ information is secure.
A company working with Jersey City Medical Center may have found a way around this challenge.
The hospital’s staff has been rapidly downloading the smartphone application Practice Unite, which allows them to ask for consults, schedule meetings and share news, all while complying with the federal law governing patient privacy.
“It gives the hospital a way to communicate seamlessly to the entire staff,” said Dr. Stuart Hochron, a doctor at the hospital as well as a principal and the chief medical officer of Navio Health LLC, which developed Practice Unite.
Under the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), patient information is tightly regulated, with privacy breaches leading to steep fines.
Practice Unite enables the hospital and doctors to share more information in a way that’s secure and HIPAA-compliant, according to Hochron and other JCMC staff members.
Practice Unite works on both iPhones and Android phones. It provides signals both on the phone screen and through a sound when messages are sent by other doctors and the hospital administration.
JCMC began using the app with a 50-doctor trial and has expanded it to roughly 170 staff members in the last seven weeks, according to hospital spokesman Mark Rabson.
Hochron said it’s important to develop a dedicated channel for doctors and hospitals to communicate at a time when mergers and consolidation mean that more doctors than ever are connected in the same health system while more procedures are being done outside of hospitals in doctors’ offices.
“It develops a relationship between the doctor and the hospital that is getting more and more attenuated,” Hochron said of the app’s goals.
A lawyer as well as a doctor, Hochron said he hopes all 700 JCMC-affiliated doctors will make use of the app.
Navio Health is talking with other hospitals in central and southern New Jersey about providing the app to their staffs, according to Hochron, whose partner on the app is Navio Group, a company that works with businesses to manage client relationships.
While there’s growing need for technology that is HIPAA-compliant, users of the technology must still be careful, according to Elizabeth G. Litten, a health law attorney and partner with Fox Rothschild’s Lawrence office.
For instance, while an app may be secure, a staff member may misplace the phone that it’s installed on, Litten said.
There have also been cases in which medical staff shared information with a case manager for an insurance company who was not entitled to the information or have emailed patient information to an outdated patient email address.
“It can be more of a user issue than a technology issue,” Litten said.
Litten added that technology that streamlines communicating patient information can also make it easier to mistakenly share that information.
With the click of a button, the information can be sent to “the wrong John Smith,” she said, adding, “I’ve heard cases where it ends up in the wrong hands accidentally.”
Hochron said the app is highly secure, including multiple layers of encryption, with servers that are located in separate states and aren’t connected to the Internet.
JCMC President and CEO Joseph F. Scott said Practice Unite addresses two of the most critical issues in U.S. healthcare: improving communication from hospitals to doctors and having secure, timely communication between doctors. He added that he expects administrators from other hospitals to be contacting him about the effectiveness of the service.
Rabson said hospital staff members are being trained in how to use Practice Unite in a secure manner.
“I wish we had this system in place during Hurricane Sandy, when we needed to communicate quickly among physicians and the hospital administration,” Rabson said.