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Utilizing Secure Messaging in Disaster Recovery Planning

An Idaho hospital implemented a secure messaging option to improve its communication and strengthen its disaster recovery plan.

secure messaging critical in disaster recovery planning

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth Snell

- Healthcare organizations of all sizes know that it is important to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Secure messaging tools are becoming an increasingly popular option for that approach, as it can give clinicians a quick and efficient way to securely transmit information.

Secure messaging was able to help Bingham Memorial Hospital improve its overall communication method, but also played an important role when the provider lost power during the recent solar eclipse.

Located in eastern Idaho, Bingham is a 25-bed critical access hospital and has 61 employed physicians. There are also over 15 clinic locations throughout Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Blackford, and other cities.

Overall, there are about 850 employees, explained Bingham Director of Information Technology Robert Weis.

“We try to provide an alternative with our non-profit status and try to provide a higher level of service in general,” he told HealthITSecurity.com. “It's definitely a fun adventure for us because there's so much that's happening and secure messaging fits right in there as something new we're trying to push out to everyone.”

READ MORE: How Healthcare Secure Texting, Messaging Impact the Industry

Weis said he has been at Bingham for about six years, and was assigned to work as its HIPAA security officer, which is part of the organization’s HIPAA compliance program.

“We have a HIPAA Privacy Officer that covers more of the medical record and other privacy issues,” Weis explained. “We all, jointly, without compliance folks, work together to make sure we have the right policies, the right tools, the right technology, to meet our compliance program with HIPAA and any other legislation, such as with the Joint Commission.”

Weis said Bingham bought DrFirst for a backline messaging tool approximately one year ago. The program was funded mostly in terms of meaningful use, and some of the security aspects of meaningful use was the original intent for the product.

“It took us about a year to get our policies for some things, like Bring Your Own Device in place,” Weis recalled. “There was just a lot of the back and forth and clarification with the Joint Commission over secure messaging. It took us a little while to get all the politics sorted out. Even though it had been funded, there was still a big question about how to roll it out and what was the impact supposed to be, how to enforce it, those kind of things.”

Secure messaging was one important aspect of DrFirst, but Weis added that he liked the idea of it being a platform on which Bingham could build.

READ MORE: BYOD Security in the Healthcare Setting

“I tried to see farther down the road,” Weis stated. “Obviously secure messaging is a big hurdle, just to get that in the environment and get it going. But we wanted more reasons for the clinical staff to be in there, not just to secure message.”

“That should be part of it, but we wanted more EMR integration so that if certain events happen in the organization was a big driver, such as whether e-prescriptions failed,” he continued. “Individuals would get notified, and they could address it to the provider that there was an issue with an e-prescription, for example.”

Other feature capabilities were also considered, such as tying some into Bingham’s interface feeds. For example, if a patient is discharged from the hospital today, housekeepers receive a message in their chat room that says, “Patient in room 210 was discharged.” Those staff members now know to go clean that room, Weis explained.

“It's seems like a small use case but those kind of things can make a big difference in time and turnaround so that it's ready for our next patient,” he said. “I like the idea of things being pushed to our employees versus them drawing people into the tool by messaging one on one.”

“I like the idea that maybe we could dream of other things, such as our labs pushing automatically,” Weis added. “Critical results could be sent to a doctor. If a doctor says, ‘Every time this comes across above this level, I want to know about it immediately.’ We can do that fine tuning with DrFirst and help build rules to help filter that down.”

READ MORE: Why Halifax Health Opted for a New Secure Texting Option

Weis stressed that Bingham wanted to see how it could keep building on the secure messaging tool in the future, and that it was not enough to just purchase a tool and tell clinicians and staff members, “Go use the messaging.”

It was important to find ways to keep drawing people into it, he maintained.

“For me there's hundreds and hundreds of secure messaging tools out there,” Weis noted. “I want to find something bigger that we can work towards or else it's just not going to get used. That's the reality of it.”

“We've seen other organizations fail and just go back to whatever they've been doing because they haven't really thought through, ‘How do I keep pulling people into it?’ We're still hoping it doesn't fail. We're in the middle of the build but that's where we are with DrFirst.”

The BYOD aspect has not yet been finalized, as there are still numerous questions that need to be answered, Weis explained. Bingham has not decided if employees will be given an option to use their own device or not, for example.

“We are already seeing a lot of good value out of it,” he said. “Hopefully it will keep growing and we'll keep building on that with our partnership with DrFirst to find new and creative things we can do with the tool.”

Employee training was a key focus area when adopting the secure messaging option, Weis recalled. It was important for Bingham to implement a tool that was innovative and kept data secure, but also did not impede clinician workflow.

“We've taken more of a hands on approach, a little more TLC,” he said. “Let's go one on one or at least small group by small group, and work with them personally. Let them ask questions and help them get all set up.”

“That way it's not just blasted out there as a ‘read me’ email that half the people don't read and then they don't know what's going on,” he continued. “We also didn’t want them frustrated because they try it and it doesn't do something they think it should, or they don't understand something and then they just move on.”

Using disaster recovery planning during the solar eclipse

Disaster recovery planning and business continuity are critical for healthcare providers, and Bingham is no exception.

“We're always trying to plan more for disasters,” Weis explained. “It's tough here because you've got day to day operations and projects that are endless, but we still try to squeeze some time.”

Communication is a key aspect to disaster recovery planning, he added. The secure messaging tool was greatly beneficial for that as well, as it offered up another option to communicate should the internet potentially go down.

When the solar eclipse happened in August 2017, Bingham did in fact have an outage for about 15 minutes. Calls coming into the hospital or clinics went down, and while it was fixed fairly quickly, Weis said it was good to have a plan in place.

“Whether it was coincidental or not [with the eclipse], we still don't know exactly, but at that moment it was like, ‘Wow. Let's try the tool. Let's broadcast to the team,’” Weis recalled. “Obviously within a few minutes, 30 to 40 people had read the message so they knew what was going on.”

It was just one small moment using the secure messaging tool, but Weis said it was worth all of the planning and the deployment of the tool.

“We just didn't know,” he stated. “It could've got worse that day. Things could have gone downhill even more so and we could have wished we had some tools at our disposal.”

As other healthcare providers consider secure messaging tools, Weis stressed that it’s important to find an option that solves numerous problems. There need to be legitimate reasons for clinicians and staff members to want to use the tool.

“If they don't have ways of drawing people in, it's going to fail,” he said. “If you're not finding that, then you're definitely missing that this is not just a text replacement tool. It's more than that.”

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