Around 43% of NHS staff in England use instant messaging despite possibility of disciplinary action, survey reveals

The RCN has warned nurses risk losing their registration by sharing sensitive data on instant messaging (IM), while some IT experts are calling for NHS-specific apps to be created to help staff communicate better

The RCN has warned nurses risk losing their registration by sharing sensitive data on instant messaging (IM), while some IT experts are calling for NHS-specific apps to be created to help staff communicate better

  • CommonTime research reveals use of IM was highest among NHS staff aged 18-24
  • More than one in 50 respondents said they faced disciplinary action over use of IM
  • 39% not aware of their organisation’s governance and data protection rules on IM
Instant messaging
Picture: iStock

Nurses are using publicly-available instant messaging (IM) apps to discuss or organise work despite them being banned by many NHS trusts.

Research published by mobile technology firm CommonTime suggests 43% (around 500,000) of NHS staff in England rely on IM such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger among others.

Some 800 staff working in clinical and non-clinical roles across acute hospitals, GP practices, ambulance, community and mental health trusts, and other parts of the NHS, were surveyed.

More than one in 50 respondents revealed facing disciplinary action over use of IM and use of the apps was highest among staff aged 18-24.

Patient information sent to the wrong person

Many trusts do not permit use of publicly available IM apps for work, but the survey found 39% of respondents were not aware of their organisation’s governance and data protection rules.

Eight individuals said they were aware of cases where patient information had been sent to the wrong person.

One respondent reported an incident where a patient’s details were posted on social media, while another reported pictures of patients being sent to others for ‘entertainment purposes’.

Further responses revealed:

  • Staff took photos of patients without permission.
  • Shared addresses and phone numbers.
  • Complained about patients.
  • Discussed recently deceased patients.
  • Gave unauthorised access to patient details.
  • Shared X-ray images.

Clear guidance outlining the risks

RCN ehealth lead Ross Scrivener said there was clear Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) guidance on use of social media and how to behave online, outlining that nurses risk their registration if they share confidential information inappropriately or post pictures of patients without their consent.

He added: ‘The use of IM services by healthcare professionals is an issue where clarification under the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation will help.’

North East London NHS Foundation Trust uses a bespoke and secure version of IM called Jabber, which allows community and district nurses to communicate and seek advice when working remotely.

IM ideal for rapid response from team members

Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust clinical lead for IT Martin Wilson said: ‘The ability to have group chats is perhaps the most obvious benefit of IM and reflects the clinical reality of working in teams.

‘Phone, pager systems and email just don’t support that clinical workflow particularly if you need a rapid response from multiple team members.’

NHS Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group head of IT Andy Hadley said a ‘cheap as chips’ IM service integrated with patient records for the entire NHS was needed.

‘The NHS needs to step up to enable secure use of technology to empower staff, and this needs to extend to social care and others involved in providing multi-agency health and care,’ he said.

Code referral

When contacted for comment, the NMC referred Nursing Standard to points five and ten of its Code.

Number five states nurses should respect people's right to privacy and confidentiality, and should make patients aware of how their information will be used. 

Part ten tells nurses to 'take all steps to make sure that records are kept securely and collect, treat and store all data and research findings appropriately.'

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