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Instant messaging applications in healthcare: are we harnessing their potential?
  1. Aswin Chari1,2,
  2. Simon BC Gane3
  1. 1 Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, London, UK
  2. 2 Department of Neurosurgery, Royal London Hospital, London, UK
  3. 3 Department of Rhinology, Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Aswin Chari, Department of Neurosurgery, Royal London Hospital, London E1 1BB, UK; aswinchari{at}

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Instant messaging technology is fast, reliable and can transmit large volumes of data. It has the potential to revolutionise communication and decision making in a healthcare industry, which, for the large part, still lives in an archaic world of pagers and faxes. However, before we can tap into the vast potential of such technology, we must ensure we do not fall prey to data security breaches and the resultant scaremongering headlines of the Mail Online from October 2015 (figure 1).1

Figure 1

Headline of Mail Online article from October 2015 warning of the risks of sharing confidential patient data over WhatsApp.

In the particular article they cite, which surveyed doctors and nurses at five London hospitals, over 95% of doctors and nurses who responded owned smartphones. Among the doctors, 64.7% had used SMS-based messaging, 46.0% had used picture messaging and 33.1% had used app-based messaging technology to transfer patient-related clinical information; 27.5% of them believed they had patient-related clinical information on their smartphones at the time.2 The implications for data security are obvious, yet seem to be ignored by practising clinicians. A further UK-based survey indicated that app-based messaging tools such as WhatsApp formed an important part of daily communication within clinical teams, with 72.5% of respondents believing that it was a ‘good thing’.3

A literature search centring around WhatsApp, conducted in June 2016, identified 41 articles in the published literature. Analysis of these articles revealed multiple uses for the app within healthcare, including communication between clinicians, communication with patients and education (figure 2). Published articles originated from a diverse set of countries and specialties, but, conspicuously, there were no articles originating from the USA, where the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act places strict regulations on the storage and transfer of medical records (figure 2). Interestingly, only …

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  • Contributors AC and SBCG conceived the idea, conducted the literature searches and drafted the manuscript. Both authors have satisfied the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) criteria for authorship and have reviewed and approved the final version prior to submission. AC is the guarantor.

  • Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.