10 FYi • Risk

Many doctors use their smartphones at work but are you aware of the potential risks? Dr Naeem Nazem offers some practical advice


T IS hard to imagine life before the smartphone. Whether it’s browsing social media, shopping online or checking emails, most of us look at our phones several times per day if not per hour. These devices have also brought about

big changes for medical professionals. Gone are the days of the junior doctor weighed down with copies of the latest BNF handbook and local formularies. You can now access this information and so much more, by downloading helpful apps provided by the likes of the General Medical Council (GMC), NICE and SIGN. Unfortunately, the smartphone era

inevitably brings risks which have resulted in new types of complaints and claims against doctors. The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself.

Messaging groups WhatsApp and other messaging groups can be an invaluable way to get quick advice or discuss difficult administrative issues with colleagues. Although most messaging platforms pride themselves on their security and confidentiality (WhatsApp provides users with end-to-end encryption), doctors must nevertheless be mindful of their duty of patient confidentiality. The GMC has extensive advice on this in

their Confidentiality guidance, but doctors also have a statutory obligation under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) (as well as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May 2018) to ensure they keep patient information private. One case MDDUS recently handled involved

a small number of FY1 hospital doctors who created a Whatsapp group chat to share information on teaching opportunities. However, the group gradually evolved into a platform to air grievances about “unreasonable” colleagues and “nightmare” patients.

Some months later, performance concerns

were raised at the annual review of one of the FY1 doctors and in response he mentioned using the messaging group as a source of peer support. Concerned that patient confidentiality may have been breached, the Trust legitimately sought and obtained a copy of all the WhatsApp group’s messages. Although they found no specific patient names had been mentioned in the messages, sufficient information had been shared to identify individuals. As the DPA makes clear, this is enough to constitute a breach of patient confidentiality. Reflecting on this case, there were some

“Remember you do not need to mention a patient by name or show their face [in a photo] for the information to constitute a breach”

easy ways in which the doctors could have protected themselves from criticism. Whether it’s jotting down something important on the back of your hand or sending a message in WhatsApp, always consider whether what you are recording could identify a patient either directly or indirectly. If it does, you may need the patient’s consent to proceed. Generally, you do not need consent if you are acting as part of a healthcare team to deliver medical care. (This does not apply to the use of WhatsApp and other messaging apps which should not be used as part of direct patient care.) However, if you are communicating information to any other party, including doctors who are not directly involved in their care, you may need the patient’s consent.

Photo diagnosis Another popular use of smartphones is for taking and sending pictures. Again, this can be very useful for doctors but there are risks. Consider the following scenario:

BE PH An FY2 doctor is asked to see a patient on

the ward with a new onset swelling next to the site of an earlier operation. The rest of her team is still in theatre so she takes a picture of it on her personal phone and sends it to her registrar for advice. The registrar replies to suggest she start the patient on intravenous antibiotics. The FY2 administers the medication and notes it on the patient’s prescription chart. Some may feel the FY2 acted appropriately in

the circumstances – she sought senior advice and commenced appropriate treatment, ensuring the patient was managed promptly and did not come to further harm. However, her actions in this case leave her vulnerable to criticism. Firstly, most trusts/health boards prohibit

the use of personal phones to take pictures of patients. Although in this case the picture did not show the patient’s face or other identifying features, it was still an image of a patient who had the right to confidentiality and whose consent had not been sought. If you do want to

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