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Handy pics may pitch the unwary into privacy minefield

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Three AMA committees are working urgently to develop guidelines for doctors over the use of mobile phones and other devices to take photos of patients amid major privacy concerns regarding the practise.

A study has found that, in just one major Australian hospital, around half of all doctors and nurses took photos of patients, with around 20 per cent using their personal smart phones to take the images.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said that while being able to quickly and easily take and transmit photos of patients was a great aid to diagnosis, treatment and medical training, doctors needed to also be aware of the serious privacy issues involved, and the need to take great care in how this was done.

The study, conducted by RMIT University researcher Kara Burns and published in Australian Health Review, found that while taking photos of patients was common, obtaining their consent was much less so, with 40 per cent admitting they did not always seek patient approval.

Ms Burns, a Darwin-based medical photographer, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the easy availability of camera phones was improving patient care, but also raising serious privacy concerns.

“Everybody you talk to that works in health care will have an experience of seeing a doctor pulling out a phone, or even being the patient who is being photographed,” she said.

Ms Burns said most photos were intended to be included in a patient’s record or for medical education purposes, but there was no clear accountability for how they were used.

Worryingly, she said, failure among doctors and other medical staff to comply with written consent guidelines when taking photos was “endemic”.

Dr Hambleton said the AMA was taking the issue “extremely seriously”, and three committees were working on guidelines to help doctors make the most of the benefits provided by smart phones and other devices without compromising patient privacy.

“These new technologies have been really great for helping patients,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “For example, if a patient has a fracture that can be photographed and transferred to [other doctors], that makes the job of deciding who comes in and what sort of care is required, much more simple.”

Dr Hambleton said that while doctors went to great lengths to ensure that patients could not be identified in images used for teaching or medical case reports, they may not be aware of other ways in which the images they took needed to be protected.

“Does it go straight to the patient’s medical file, or doe sit stay on the phone, and does the phone have the right level of security?” he said. “Doctors need to be aware of the magnitude of the risk.”

Adrian Rollins




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