Poison control centers and alternative forms of communicating with the public: what’s all the chatter about?

Context: Short messaging service (SMS or text messaging) allows for the exchange of electronic text messages. Online chatting refers to Internet-based transmission of messages for real-time conversation. Poison Control Centers (PCCs) in the United States communicate with the public primarily via telephone. However, people increasingly prefer the convenience of SMS and chatting. Our objective is to describe the use of SMS and chatting by PCCs in the United States.

Methods: An electronic survey questionnaire was distributed to all 55 US poison control center members of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The survey assessed protocols for SMS and chatting, inquiry volume, and staff satisfaction. Centers reporting use of SMS or chatting services were administered follow-up questions, which further documented SMS and chatting interfaces and startup and maintenance costs. Descriptive statistics were used to describe the data. No statistical analysis was performed.

Results: Of the 55 PCCs, 51 (93%) responded to the survey, 6 (12%) of which currently use or formerly used SMS and/or chatting. Inquiry volume ranged from 0 to 1 per day for SMS and 0 to 20 per day for chats. Startup costs ranged from $0 to $25,000. The most beneficial aspect, reported by 4 of the 6 PCCs (66.6%), was providing an alternative contact for inquiries. Most SMS and chatting interactions were completed within 10 and 30 min, respectively. All six centers completed telephone interactions within 10 min. The most disadvantageous aspects, reported by 2 of the 6 PCCs (33.3%), were staff apprehension and interaction length. Technology, such as syncing with existing call queuing software and databases, presented the greatest barrier to implementation.

Conclusions: A minority of PCCs in the United States use SMS and chatting. Further research may investigate the economic feasibility of these systems, if SMS and chatting effectively expands public access, and patient comfort in contacting PCCs.