Sharing images of patients electronically

In an article in the medical magazine Pulse, I and two other commentators discuss issues around the electronic sharing of images of patients that clinicans should be aware of.

The very high use of information technology in modern society has resulted in the practical uses of sending and sharing information electronically rapidly outstripping published guidance in this area. For example, many NHS organisations have draconian policies about sending patient information by email – in some cases describing sending information by unencrypted email as similar to ‘sending it on a postcard’. No empirical evidence is ever presented in such guidance that sending information electronically is any less secure than sending it by post or telephone. Guidance from such organisations has also yet to catch up with the now near-ubiquitous access to smartphones, high-speed Internet connections and high-resolution cameras in our society. In my opinion, it is acceptable for the photo to be stored on your phone as long as you take reasonable precautions to secure your device.

Most patients would generally be happy to have an image of their skin condition shared with your colleague if this helped in getting a better diagnosis or a more appropriate treatment plan. You should though obtain consent from the patient before sharing the image with your colleague. If you are apprehensive about using a photo or file sharing app, you could send the image from one NHS Net email account to another. NHS email is a fully encrypted method of communication and can be used for sending sensitive patient information. If you want to use the image in a presentation, then you should get explicit consent for this from the patient, ideally in writing, as is now standard for case reports in medical journals.

We should encourage the use of technology as a tool for improving quality of care, patient experience and health outcomes; but at the same time, we must ensure that we respect patient confidentiality and always obtain informed consent from patients before sharing their information electronically.

You can read the full article in Pulse.

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