Doctors Already Use Phones To Share Clinical Images Of Patients – Legislation Needs To Catch Up
Adrian Dyer, Jair Garcia, Ted Rohr, 10 Jan 18
       

Images are so useful in medical diagnosis - but there are legal and ethical concerns about how they’re used. from www.shutterstock.com

Imagine this scenario: you’re a recently graduated doctor working at a medical clinic in rural Australia. A person presents with a bite of what seems to be a poisonous spider - but you’re not sure. You take a photo of the skin lesion on your phone, and post it in a social media group to source swift advice from more experienced experts.

Digital image capturing devices like smartphones have enormous potential to facilitate communication for time critical medical interventions. And, as a society, we all seem to be part of a contract where we tacitly consent to immediate, mass distribution of images depicting us.

But there’s a catch: image capture and storage may fail to comply with current legislative frameworks for privacy, with significant ethical, legal and security implications.

As a society, it’s time for us to review how digital imaging is changing healthcare, security and other specialities.

Legal use of information

Australian legislation refers to the 1988 Privacy Act framework for guidelines about the legal and ethical use of information, including images.

This legislation was developed during a time of centralised practice of medical photography – when images were physically stored at a hospital, and could not be reproduced, or accessed, without due authorisation.

But all this changed with the advent of smartphone-enabled cameras that can capture, process and mass distribute an image instantly.

Legislative changes to the Australian Privacy Act took effect in March 2014 following the introduction of the Privacy Amendment Act 2012 and the Privacy Regulation 2013.

Under these changes, people or medical professionals with unsecured patient images on their smart devices could face fines up to A$340,000, and institutions up to A$1,700,000 for breaches of patient privacy.

At a national level, mandatory data breach notification obligations will come into force in early 2018.

But it’s not clear how this federal legislation interacts with state regulation of digital images. Individual state governments apply a range of acts to meet specific requirements in some sectors.

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