Secure Communication for Home Care

Alert System Helps Ensure Personnel and Patient Safety
Secure Communication for Home Care
Jason Grinstead

When healthcare professionals travel to patients' homes to provide care, it's important to ensure the safety of clinicians as well as patients. A new secure, mobile alert system is playing a safety-assurance role at Care at Home, a home health agency based in Campbell, Calif.

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The agency is using an alert system from AtHoc to securely communicate with its 150 staff members while they are traveling or caring for patients in their homes.

The system being rolled out by Care at Home enables healthcare professionals out in the field to use their own smart phones or company-issued tablets to send 64-bit encrypted alerts to agency personnel back in the office.

Those messages can range from alerts about a worker's own physical safety to health issues about patients. Staff members also can use the alerts to inform agency personnel of power outages in the homes of patients, including those who rely on medical monitoring or other telehealth gear.

When a field worker sends an alert to the agency, appropriate individuals, such as case managers, receive it as a pop-up desktop computer message, text, e-mail or phone call.

Filling a Need

"Remote staff are going to unknown areas throughout the community by themselves," explains Jason Grinstead, president of Care at Home. "Having an application that provides them with one-touch duress reporting for themselves and their patients is a high priority within the home health and hospice industry."

Care a Home decided it needed a secure, auditable method in multiple modalities to ensure urgent messages are promptly sent and received, Grinstead says.

In addition, an AtHoc geo-tracking feature can be used on the mobile devices of field workers so that their location can be traced, he says. "The location tracking feature can be activated in case of safety concerns, such as by nurses traveling in unfamiliar areas at night."

The feature also can be used to send messages to appropriate staff members in the event of a natural or man-made disaster or other urgent need, Grinstead says. "There needs to be situational awareness of the location and status of each individual," he says.

Plus, geo-tracking can be used as a check-in and check-out option that verifies when field workers are actually in patient homes, in case there's a dispute between home health staff and the families of patients. Sometimes, elderly patients, or those on some medications, don't remember when or if a home healthcare professional made a scheduled visit, Grinstead explains.

Breach Prevention

The mobile messages are encrypted in transit, and there's no storing of the alert data at rest because messages are wiped after sending. So the alerts help Care at Home comply with HIPAA, Grinstead says. Additionally, an audit feature enables Care at Home to track a communication to verify who received a message and when, he says.

Care at Home managers also are using the new system to send secure messages to workers who need to renew their professional licenses and to help fill urgent staffing needs. "The application can quickly and easily allow us to notify nurses of shifts and reach all of them in an instant," he says. "This is a piece of the puzzle in responding to staffing needs quickly."

Other Uses

AtHoc's emergency communication system is also used by a number of large healthcare providers and government agencies, says John Tempesco, a senior director at the company. For instance, the system was recently used to communicate a shelter-in-place emergency message to federal workers during the Navy Shipyard shooting in Washington, D.C, he says.

Care At Home plans to test other uses for the alert technology.

"As we move forward, we see many different use cases in homecare to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of administrative functions with our workflow in addition to the core safety and security uses of the AtHoc platform," Grinstead says. "Our collaborative efforts will be focused on realizing those efficiencies and developing workflows, integrations and policies for additional uses within our operation."

AtHoc is also investigating integrating the alert system with at-home monitoring or telehealth gear so that, for example, a wireless scale used by heart failure patients could trigger an alert to case managers if the patient has a sudden change in weight, Tempesco says.

Grinstead notes that despite the use of AtHoc communication system for alerts, Care At Home personnel are still expected to call 911 in patient health emergencies. Also, the agency uses a separate electronic health record system to provide home health workers with care details about patient cases.

The Big Picture

Jonathan Linkous, president of the American Telemedicine Association, says the ability to securely communicate, either by using stand-alone tools or as part of other integrated telehealth solutions, is critical to healthcare professionals and their patients.

As more patients nationwide receive at-home care, "it's important to be able to send and receive urgent confidential information securely, and ensure the right person receives it," Linkous notes. "This addresses safety concerns and gives piece of mind to healthcare professionals and patients.

Barry Runyon, a vice president of research at the consulting firm Gartner, notes: "Reducing readmissions is about treating patients at home and keeping them out of expensive care venues like the ER or as inpatients. ... Secure communications is an important part of telehealth and telemedicine."

About the Author

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Executive Editor, HealthcareInfoSecurity

McGee is executive editor of Information Security Media Group's media site. She has about 30 years of IT journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues for more than 15 years. Before joining ISMG in 2012, she was a reporter at InformationWeek magazine and news site, and played a lead role in the launch of InformationWeek's healthcare IT media site.

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