New guidance for the NHS to help doctors, nurses and other staff use instant messaging safely to co-ordinate patients’ care during emergencies.

Medics have increasingly turned to communication channels such as Whatsapp to deal with emergency situations like the Croydon tram crash, Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London Bridge and Manchester Arena.

There is an increasing need for formal guidance to ensure effective channels of communication are utilised in times of a crisis to boost the efficiency with which emergency health services are administered.

The new guidance published jointly by NHS England, NHS Digital, Public Health England, and the Department of Health and Social Care, will help NHS organisations and staff make a judgement on how and when to use instant messaging safely in acute clinical settings. Of course, they must do so taking into account data sharing and privacy rules.

Dr Simon Eccles, Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care, reflected on the crucial need for NHS organisations to have a process in place in times of crisis.

He 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.”

Simple steps that staff should take include:

  • Only using apps and other messaging tools that meet the NHS encryption standard
  • Not allowing anyone else to use their device
  • Disabling message notifications on their device’s lock-screen to protect patient confidentiality
  • Keeping separate clinical records and delete the original messaging notes once any advice has been transcribed and attributed in the medical record.

Dr Helgi Johannsson, Consultant in Anaesthesia at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust who was involved in reviewing the new NHS guidance, said: “Fully encrypted instant messaging services can be a particularly useful communication tool in delivering care to people during a major incident.”

He added: “These sensible guidelines will make the care of our patients safer through better communication by NHS staff.”

The NHS 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.

Mr Andrew Miles, Consultant General Surgeon and Royal College of Surgeons Council Member, said: “Doctors have a responsibility to abide by all relevant rules on patient confidentiality and a professional responsibility to ensure they do not breach that confidentiality when using instant messaging tools.

“This important guidance will keep our patients safer by empowering clinical teams to use the latest and best available technology.”

Dawn Monaghan, Director of the Information Governance Alliance, stressed the distinction that “instant messaging … 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.

“This guidance has been designed with clinicians to help NHS organisations and their staff take a proportionate approach, considering both the potential risks to privacy and the potential improvements in patient safety.”

Full guidance can be viewed here