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Medics 'using own smartphones to share patient details'

Published 08/10/2015

Doctors and nurses have admitted they use apps, text messages and picture messaging to share clinical information about patients among colleagues
Doctors and nurses have admitted they use apps, text messages and picture messaging to share clinical information about patients among colleagues

Doctors are putting patients at risk by using their own smartphones to share potentially confidential details, including photos, a study has found.

Medics use apps, text messages and picture messaging to share clinical information about patients, with some forgetting to delete the details afterwards.

Experts behind the study said the "lack of data encryption and necessary security" means the sharing of patient information is " currently unsecure and may result in the inadvertent disclosure of highly sensitive and confidential data".

This is particularly a risk if handsets are lost, stolen or viewed by other people, they said.

Researchers, including from Imperial College London, surveyed doctors and nurses at a large London NHS trust consisting of five individual hospitals.

In total, 287 doctors and 564 nurses completed the survey.

Some 65% of doctors said they had used text messages to send patient information, while 46% had sent pictures involving patients to colleagues.

Examples included sending photographs of wounds or X-rays to other medics to get their opinion.

A third (33%) of doctors had used app-based messaging services such as WhatsApp to share clinical information about patients.

Nurses were less likely to share such information, with 14% using text messages, 6% using text apps and 7% using picture messaging.

More than a quarter (28%) of doctors and 4% of nurses said they still had patient-related clinical information on their smartphones.

Even with the use of smartphones becoming more routine in hospitals, 59% of doctors said they would still prefer to use their own rather than one issued by the hospital.

The survey, published in the journal BMJ Innovations, also found 90% of doctors and 67% of nurses use medical apps for their work.

Of those , 41% of doctors use the apps weekly while 33% use them daily.

Examples of medical apps used include drug formularies, medical calculators, disease diagnosis apps and those for preparing and administering drugs .

The researchers behind the study said : " Doctors and nurses must also be aware that the medical h ealth apps market is currently under-regulated and that defective apps are capable of causing patient harm."

Overall, 99% of doctors and 95% of nurses in the study own a smartphone, while 74% of doctors and 65% of nurses own a tablet.

Some 93% of doctors and 53% of nurses said their smartphone is "very useful" or "useful" in helping them to perform their duties.

Evidence suggests more than 90,000 mobile health apps available, the researchers said.

They argued it is "imperative that NHS organisations educate staff on the dangers of sending patient information using unsecure smartphone modalities".

A spokesman for the campaign group medConfidential said: "While no doubt these messages are being sent to facilitate the best care of patients, there are serious concerns about the safety of such sensitive patient information being sent - unencrypted and unsecured some instances - from personal device to personal device.

"What happens if the message gets sent to a wrong number?

"Retaining a patient's clinical data on your phone for longer than absolutely necessary is not only a serious breach of data protection, it could lead to breaches of confidentiality or worse."

He said it is "perverse" there are not enforced policies for using smartphones in the NHS alongside secure, encrypted tools for NHS staff.

"If you fail to provide professionals with the digital tools they actually need, of course they will tend to use what is to hand," he said.

He also said it is worrying doctors may use apps that have not been properly checked and approved.

An NHS England spokeswoman said: "Protecting patient information is crucial. Apps and other online services offer powerful benefits to clinical practice but it's vital that doctors and nurses know which ones are safe to use.

"That's why we have recently begun piloting a new assessment model to help clinicians quickly identify the safest, most robust apps and digital health tools."

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