GP practices are being advised to get patients’ explicit consent before communicating with them via text message.

Latest advice from the Medical Defence Union warns GPs that sending text messages to patients who have not opted-in to such a service could lead to complaints.

The defence body said GP practices were increasingly looking at text messages as another way of communicating with patients, with uses including reminders about appointments or to take medication, communicating test results or checking on a patient’s progress.

Dr James Armstrong, MDU medico-legal adviser, said that some hospitals have implemented text messaging schemes on an opt-out basis but that they had the resources to deliver the “considerable publicity” that was needed for such schemes.

He added: “While GPs may publicise a text message service to patients on the practice website, practice leaflet and through posters in the waiting room, many patients may still not be aware of the service.

"They might be surprised to receive a text message from the surgery if they have not given their specific consent and this could lead to a complaint, particularly if the unexpected message is somehow picked up by somebody else.”

Dr Armstrong advised practices to err on the side of caution to ensure confidential information is protected in line with General Medical Council guidance.

He said seeking explicit consent would also give the GP an opportunity to reassure the patients about the security arrangement in place and to check they have the correct mobile number to avoid confidentiality breaches.

A spokesperson for the MDU told EHI Primary Care that the MDU was not aware of any complaints it had received as yet about text messaging but said it did get occasional queries from practices planning to set up such services and wanted to offer pre-emptive advice.

The MDU, which has included the advice in its March journal, also suggests that practices using texte messaging systems consider extra security measures if sensitive information such as test results are to be communicated by text.

The defence body said patients could be asked to respond to a message confirming their identity by using a pre-arranged password before transmission.

The MDU said details of text messages sent to or received from patients should also be documented in the patient’s record and practices should consider alternative or additional methods of communicating important information to patients such as requests for urgent follow-up.