Team collaboration tools have become popular in a variety of sectors in recent years, replacing email with group chat “channels” for real-time communication. For Valley Behavioral Health, that’s meant using Slack to improve the flow of information between staffers while ensuring that patient data remains protected.

Although it’s largely a Microsoft shop, the Utah-based mental health services provider uses Slack’s Enterprise Grid for internal communications among its 750 employees, connecting doctors, therapists, social workers and other staff members.

Valley Behavioral Health has channels for care coordination and a broad range of other purposes, from HR-related queries to property management issues (users can upload a photo of faulty equipment in office buildings, for example) to IT ticket submission. There’s also a  “general” channel allows for informal conversations between colleagues.  

“It’s a real hub of communication around our entire business,” said Valley Behavioral Health CIO Tyler Tait in a recent interview.

Securing patient information

As an organization operating in a highly regulated area — healthcare — Valley Behavioral Health must manage protected health information (PHI) sent by staff that use a digital communication platform.

Although not initially aimed at regulated industries, Slack’s Enterprise Grid — announced in 2018 — can be configured for compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), thanks to the addition of encryption and data protection capabilities.

With Enterprise Grid, Valley Behavioral Health’s PHI data is encrypted at rest and in transit on Slack’s servers and can be saved on its own encrypted drives. For audit purposes, it’s possible see what PHI was shared, with whom, and when.  

There have been practical advantages for staff. HIPAA compliance allowed Valley Behavioral Health workers to send messages containing PHI information in certain channels, enabling faster communication across the organization, said Tait. As an example, he pointed to parents who routinely pick up their child from Valley Behavioral Health’s school for children with autism. When staff are informed of a parent’s arrival, the chat message containing the name of their child could be considered sensitive patient data.

Tyler Tait Valley Behavioral Health

Valley Behavioral Health CIO Tyler Tait.

“They need to be able to say which child — you can’t just say the client ID,” Tait said. “We were able to make it more effective: it was an easier, immediate way for them to communicate.” 

Even so, Valley Behavioral Health warns its staff to avoid sharing PHI over Slack unless necessary, with PHI not allowed in the “general” channel, for instance.

“It was huge for us to be able to allow folks to be able to put PHI into Slack; that’s been great for the specific times and use cases where it’s been necessary. But the bottom line is that we tell folks, ‘If you don’t need to share any patient information in Slack, then don’t,’” he said. Instead, PHI is shared in small private groups or direct messages between individuals, where appropriate.

There are other ways Valley Behavioral Health protects patient information. It keeps third-party integrations to a minimum to reduce the risk of data being moved to external providers. It has also opted against integrating Slack with its electronic medical records (EMR) system, to keep patient data separate from the collaboration platform.

“Slack is a communication tool to keep people engaged: it’s immediate, it’s completely up to date, and it keeps everybody ‘in the know,’” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a file or data repository for information, even though it is HIPAA-compliant.”

While team collaboration tools are not widely used in healthcare, said Seth Feder, senior director analyst for healthcare at Gartner, interest is growing. That’s a reflection, in part, of the broader maturity of health IT environments following the widespread adoption of EMR systems over the past decade.

Although major EMR software vendors have message capabilities built into their platforms, these don’t offer the functionality that a dedicated communication and collaboration can provide.  “[A] common complaint we hear is EMR vendors can’t keep up with the level of innovation seen by third-party tech companies that focus on particular solutions,” he said. “Thus, replicating the Slack experience is difficult.” 

Remote work and mobile messaging

Having relied on a team collaboration software for several years, Valley Behavioral Health was well placed last year when it had to support remote work during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Tait. That shift took place with minimal disruption and no drop-off in productivity.

“We could see what was going on with the channels before and after, and just as much work was getting done; there was just as much activity,” Tait said.

One of the ripple effects of the pandemic and the move to more remote work has been a greater reliance on mobile devices, both in terms of laptops and smartphones. Previously, Slack had mainly been accessed on desktop devices.

“That’s when we made a big push: we said that we’ve got to make this accessible on people’s smartphones,” said Tait.

Now mobile access is firmly embedded in Valley Behavioral Health’s collaboration strategy. “Part of our onboarding process is to install Slack on everybody’s phone,” said Tait. “We tell our employees that, just as a car is required to come to work, a smartphone is necessary for them here to be able to work.

“That’s been a major difference; that means everybody is much more accessible to get Slack messages, and communication can be much more effective.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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