Healthy texting? Only on Haida Gwaii

A pilot project at the Haida Gwaii health centre in Queen Charlotte is now recruiting patients for a non-emergency texting service.

How much healthcare can you get by text?

If all you need is a blood sugar reading or a new appointment, it could be quicker to ask for it by text rather than calling the clinic no phone tree, no phone tag, no holds.

And if all goes well, you might get a happy-face reply.

A pilot project at the Haida Gwaii health centre in Queen Charlotte is now recruiting patients to see how texting about non-emergency health needs might work for them.

“The idea is that things are going to happen much more quickly,” says Dr. Tracy Morton, a physician at the centre.

During the pilot, which started April 1, interested patients and a team of nurses will be able to send and receive texts on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Any patient at the health centre is welcome to sign up, but the team will try and recruit the most frequent users people with diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“If we’re going to demonstrate a change in health outcomes, it’s probably going to be in those who are sickest and in most need of healthcare,” said Dr. Morton.

Patients who sign up will get just one automated text a week a question on Monday mornings that simply asks, “How are you doing?”

Dr. Morton said it’s meant to spark conversation, and people can ignore the text, reply in kind, or phone in to see the doctor or nurse practitioner.

Sent using SMS technology, which breaks messages into 140-character chunks, the texts will be visible to one of five nurses on a secure website.

It’s a unique model in B.C., and possibly Canada, said Dr. Morton, where it’s more common to see one-way texting alert programs that don’t handle any personal information.

While that solves the privacy issue, some patients have quit such services because getting a stream of vague, feel-good messages like “Try to maintain a stress-free life” isn’t particularly helpful.

The texting pilot at the Haida Gwaii health centre is a more personal service. There is even potential for video chatting in the future.

Dr. Morton said it’s important that people understand what the service is for, and what it’s not it’s not an on-call emergency service.

“We can’t have somebody waiting 24/7 for incoming texts. That’s what the emergency room is for,” he said.

“We do not want anyone waiting for a text and dying at home.”

One week into the pilot, Dr. Morton said the nurse team responded to about 10 questions from patients who said they found the replies helpful. Most texts were about minor issues.

“Maybe they wouldn’t have pushed to get in to see somebody, but it was on their mind,” he said.

When the pilot is finished, local epidemiologist Alissa MacMullin will report on the experience of patients with chronic conditions to see whether the clinic texting program might work long-term.