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As we've discussed in previous posts, the U.S. healthcare system is currently undergoing something of a seismic shift regarding physician compensation. Specifically, the model of paying physicians per appointment, per test ordered, etc. is slowly being replaced with one in which physicians are being compensated for keeping their patients healthy.

This reality, in turn, has physicians looking for efficient and effective ways to remain in regular contact with their patients outside of the traditional office appointment. One option that is generating considerable interest is secure messaging apps, which facilitate instant communication between patients and physicians via smartphones, laptops and tablets. 

In particular, many U.S. physicians are starting to consider Whatsapp, which one survey found is already used by 50 percent of physicians in China and 87 percent of physicians in Brazil.

What is Whatsapp?    

For those unfamiliar with Whatsapp, it's a "cross-platform mobile messaging app" that enables users to exchange messages without incurring charges associated with short messaging services (SMS) -- otherwise known as text messages.

The primary appeal of Whatsapp for physicians is its price -- $0 -- and its end-to-end encryption, meaning all messages sent and received are fully protected from exposure or interception.  

How many physicians are using Whatsapp?

The aforementioned survey found that a mere 4 percent of U.S. physicians are currently using the Facebook-owned app to communicate with patients.

Why are the usage rates so low?

Experts indicate that the reasons so few U.S. physicians are using the app is that they are afraid of running afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

Is Whatsapp or any other similar service HIPPA-compliant?

When it comes to these messaging services, there really is no label that can be affixed indicating that they are 100 percent HIPPA-compliant. Indeed, experts indicate that compliance stems more on whether the physicians using the technology are taking the necessary security precautions -- password protecting all devices, creating authentication systems, etc. -- than the actual messaging app being deployed.

Still, they indicate that Whatsapp has a decisive edge over competitors given that it’s the only one with end-to-end encryption.

Is it just a matter of time before most physicians are using Whatsapp?

While some would say yes, others are not entirely certain given the number of unanswered questions.

Specifically, it remains uncertain how messaging conversations would be included as part of a patient's electronic medical record, whether these conversations would be admissible in medical malpractice lawsuits and what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPPA, has to say about this topic.

Stay tuned for updates …

Consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you or your organization has questions or concerns about legal exposure, health care compliance or other regulatory issues.

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