Instant messaging services ‘vital’ during crisis

Following a number of major incidents last year, new NHS guidance will help doctors, nurses and other health staff use instant messaging safely to co-ordinate patients’ care during emergencies.

Following the tragedies of the Croydon tram crash, Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London Bridge and Manchester Arena, the new guidance will help NHS organisations and staff to make a judgement on how and when to use instant messaging safely in acute clinical settings, taking in to account data sharing and data privacy rules.

Following such events last year, many medics used communication channels such as Whatsapp to deal with emergency situations, so the new guidance suggests only using apps and other messaging tools that meet the NHS encryption standard and stressing that nobody else should use their device.

Other simple steps outlined in the guidance include disabling message notifications on their device’s lock-screen to protect patient confidentiality and keeping separate clinical records and delete the original messaging notes once any advice has been transcribed and attributed in the medical record.

Simon Eccles, Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care, said: “Helping people during a crisis like the Grenfell fire, demands a quick response and instant messaging services can be a vital part of the NHS toolkit. Health service staff are always responsible about how they use patients’ personal details and these new guidelines will help our doctors and nurses to make safe and effective use of technology under the most intense pressure.”

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust’s Helgi Johannsson set up a major incident instant messaging group to help coordinate his hospital’s response to Grenfell Tower after learning a key lesson during the Westminster attack.

She said of the new guidance: “Fully encrypted instant messaging services can be a particularly useful communication tool in delivering care to people during a major incident. From the Westminster attack we learnt it was important not to overload the emergency care co-ordinators with offers of help, so with Grenfell we used instant messaging to help coordinate which staff should come in, who was needed where and plan the service for later on that day which vastly improved the care we were able to provide. These sensible guidelines will make the care of our patients safer through better communication by NHS staff.”

The new guidance was published jointly by NHS England, NHS Digital, Public Health England, and the Department of Health and Social Care.

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