The world’s most popular chat service Whatsapp, with more than 1.2 billion active users, is regularly used by medical professionals within England’s National Health Service. Although sending patient information through messaging platforms is strictly prohibited by British authorities, practitioners claim that web-based apps streamline time-sensitive information faster than the approved method, fax or pager.
Reports show that physicians rely on messaging apps to exchange and disseminate pertinent patient information. Georgie Gould, MD, conducted a study at St Peter’s Hospital in Cherstey, Surrey and found that 30 percent of surgeons were using Whatsapp to communicate with their colleagues on a daily basis. Another study published in the British Medical Journal found that a third of all physicians in five England hospitals use chat apps to send patient data.
According to the BBC, there are several benefits to using Whatsapp over faxing and paging. One anonymous trauma surgeon told the news outlet, “We use WhatsApp because it’s the quickest and easiest way to communicate with a whole team or group of clinicians, If you’re responding to a major incident, you can have the whole team involved and see what’s coming so teams can be ready.” It also levels out hierarchy, so healthcare workers, in all departments and positions feel comfortable messaging with one another. The surgeon emphasized that patients are only identified by bed number or their initials.
Gould insists that faxing and paging is “lengthy.” Physicians are required to dial a four-digit code on landlines in order to get in touch with their colleagues and wait for a response. “I think that the problems of [faxing and paging] could be easily solved without throwing huge amounts of money at it,” she told the BBC.
Using Whatsapp and other chat apps like SnapChat to deliver confidential information could potentially expose a patient’s identity. For example, in the instance that a physician’s cellphone was hacked or stolen, a patient’s HIV records could be released to the public.