Texting Patients: Laws and Best Practices of Patient Text Messaging

Before texting patients your entire team should know the legal rules and regulations for messaging, which are governed by the FCC under the TCPA.

Firing off text messages is one of the best ways to contact patients. Heck, for most people it's the best way.

Studies have found that texting is the most preferred form of communication in the United States. It's quick, it's easy, there's no prolonged dialogue — of course people love texting!

But here's the deal: though convenient, texting's not all fun and games. You can't go messaging patients all willy-nilly. There are actually federal regulations in place to save us all from receiving a deluge of unwanted text messages.

Text messaging is covered under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). It's enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and carries serious, serious fines for anyone who runs afoul of the law.

A practice that knowingly violates the TCPA can incur fines of up to $1,500 per text message. Meanwhile, statutory damages for TCPA violations can run a practice $500 per text. As you can see, there's some serious residual damage that can happen to offenders.

So, now that we've gotten the fire and brimstone portion of this article out of the way, here's how to stay in the FCC's good graces.

Ask For Consent

Ever hear of the old axiom, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission"? Well, that's not the case when it comes to texting patients marketing materials.

Before you text advertising or marketing materials to patients, you must have their consent. If you do not, you will be in strict violation of the TCPA and in danger of incurring the nasty fines mentioned above.

Furthermore, it's not enough to verbally ask a patient while they're checking in. You must have written consent from the patient before messaging any marketing material.

It can be part of the welcome packet, it can be in an electronic form, it can be in any material you like, but you must have the patient sign on the line that they're cool with you texting them marketing information.

Types of Marketing Messages

So what constitutes a marketing message? Here are various messages that, if you plan on texting to a patient, you'll need their written consent:

  • Advertisements for new services
  • Solicitations to events
  • Special offers

Other Messages Needing Consent

Accounting notices also fall under the category of notices you'll need permission to send.

The reason behind this goes back to telephones and debt collectors. Under the TCPA, debt collectors cannot call people at work once they know it's an inconvenience, nor can they auto-message individuals.

Here are some accounting notices you'll need consent for:

  • Accounting notifications
  • Billing information
  • Collection messages

So, while your billing notices likely won't be as aggressive as a debt collector, remember that this messaging is rolled up under the TCPA. You'll need consent before sending anything about billing to patients.

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Give Patients an Out

Getting patients to agree to receive your marketing materials is only the first step in the equation. A great first step, mind you, but still only the beginning.

Whenever texting patients marketing or billing information, you must also give the ability to opt out from receiving any further messages. Normally this comes in some form of a note following your text that says, "Reply STOP to stop receiving messages."

This protects patients from being spammed with messages they once wanted, but found they no longer enjoyed. Again, failure to abide by this guideline could result in heavy fines.

Medical Messages are Okay!

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Is there anything I can text patients without written documentation?"

The answer is a resounding yes! Medical messages are completely okay, as they are exempt from the written consent rule.

In other words, if you have a patient's phone number, you can lawfully text them information without consent so long as the message pertains to their health.

Types of Medical Messages

So what constitutes a medical message? Here are various messages that are okay to text patients whether or not you have their consent:

  • Appointment reminders
  • Appointment confirmation messages
  • Post-op or home healthcare instructions
  • Post-discharge information
  • Results from the lab
  • Prescription notifications

Best Practices for Texting Patients

Texting patients doesn't have to be scary. In fact, it shouldn't be.

It's important to know the penalties you can incur by improperly texting, but, much like HIPAA, OSHA, and other regulations, once you put the proper systems in place, you'll be all set.

Here are some best practices to ensure you're texting on the right side of the law, all while providing patients with the absolute best service:

  • Ask for consent for all communications
  • Provide two different opt-ins — one for marketing messages, one for medical messages (Marketing consent is mandated by the law)
  • Medical consent is a polite way of showing you won't bombard the patient with any unwanted messaging (even though you lawfully can in the case of healthcare)
  • Never combine marketing and healthcare information in a text: You need consent if there's any type of marketing in a message (despite the presence of health info), so err on the side of caution
  • Include an opt-out message in all texts: Again, this is part of the law for marketing messaging, so why not just make it a standard practice in all your messaging
  • Train all team members on proper messaging rules: Lump these TCPA tidbits into your HIPAA folder, since both deal with the communication/information
  • When using texting to ask for reviews, do no incentivize the reviews: If a patient receives a gift card for their reviews, they must, according to TCPA, disclose the incentive during their review
  • If unsure whether you're sending a marketing text or a healthcare text, assume it's a marketing message

NOTE: For questions about these regulations, always confer with your attorney. The information contained herein should not be construed as legal advice.

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