NHS staff advised on using instant messaging during emergencies

NHS staff have been issued with new guidance on using instant messaging services such as Whatsapp to co-ordinate patient care during emergencies.

Medics have already turned to communication channels such as Whatsapp to deal with emergency situations such as the 2016 Croydon tram crash, and last year’s Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London Bridge and Manchester.

The new guidance will help NHS organisations and staff to make a judgment on how and when to use instant messaging safely in acute clinical settings, taking into account data sharing and data privacy rules.

Simple steps that staff will be told they should take include only using apps and other messaging tools that meet the NHS encryption standard, not allowing anyone else to use their device, and disabling message notifications on their device’s lock screen to protect patient confidentiality.

They will also be advised to keep separate clinical records and delete original messaging notes once any advice has been transcribed and attributed in the patient’s medical record.

Dr Helgi Johannsson, consultant in anaesthesia at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, set up a major incident instant messaging group to help coordinate his hospital’s response to Grenfell Tower after learning from the Westminster attack, and was involved in reviewing the new NHS guidance.

He said: “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.”

Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care, Dr Simon Eccles 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.”

The NHS said it has not endorsed any particular instant messaging tools. Instead, the guidance sets out what information governance issues need to be considered and what standards need to be met.

It is being published jointly by NHS England, NHS Digital, Public Health England, and the Department of Health and Social Care.

Dawn Monaghan, director of the Information Governance Alliance, said: “Improved communication between medical professionals keeps patients safer.

“Instant messaging however is no substitute for the medical record and it is important any advice received on those channels is added to the medical record, with the original messages deleted.”