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Should Your Doctor Be Texting You?

patient-doctor confidentially

Last year, A British Columbia doctor was fined $20,000 for breaching a patient’s privacy by texting an unauthorized photo of the patient’s catheter site along with a joke to somebody not involved with the case.

A recent study out of the University of Toronto is raising privacy concerns surrounding patient-doctor confidentially during communication conducted via text messaging.

The study, published in the journal Surgical Innovation, surveyed general surgery residents at a large Canadian medical school and asked about their texting habits while on the job. The results showed that 100 percent of survey respondents used texting for patient-related communication, with 41 per cent of respondents reporting that texting was the most common way that they communicated routine patient-related information with staff physicians.

Importantly, a large majority of the residents felt that texting enhanced patient care. This result confirms research conducted last year in Britain that saw U.K. doctors and nurses routinely using smartphones for patient care. 92 per cent of doctors surveyed said that messaging and health related apps on their phones proved to be either ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’ when carrying out their clinical duties. Many doctors commented that the regularly used their phones to send photos of patients wounds or x-rays to colleagues for consultation.

But this routine communication of patient-related information via smartphone comes with a range of privacy and patient-doctor confidentially concerns. The U.K. study reports that a majority (70 percent) of doctors surveyed wanted a secure means of sending patient data over their phones, something that has yet to exist in the United Kingdom. The study’s authors urge that the National Health Service (NHS) needs to make sure that hospital staff understand the potential risks of sharing patient information over unencrypted smartphones.

“The results provide strong evidence that healthcare organisations need to develop policies to support the safe and secure use of digital technologies in the workplace and that strategies are needed to secure further innovations in digital health,” the authors conclude.

The U of T study reported that the majority (66 percent) of residents surveyed did not know if their hospital had a policy on texting and were unaware of legislation covering texting connected to patient care.

Last fall British Columbia’s privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, called for immediate action by provincial health authorities to secure the privacy of BC citizens’ health information and to report privacy breaches. The commissioner’s report found that common breaches of privacy included lost or stolen records, unencrypted data, health workers “snooping” in electronic records and deliberate social media.

Last year, A British Columbia doctor was fined $20,000 last year for breaching a patient’s privacy by texting an unauthorized photo of the patient’s catheter site along with a joke to somebody not involved with the case.

But aside from intentional privacy breaches committed by physicians, concerns are focused on the unintentional – a resident’s lost cell phone, for example, or messaging that could be accessed over unsafe platforms.

The U of T study reported that 89 percent of residents surveyed did not have encrypted phones and a further 11 percent did not even have a password on their cell phone.

The Canadian Medical Protective Association urges Canadian medical professionals to be cautious in the use of texting and electronic communication tools, saying that doctors should be “mindful of the legal and professional standards as would apply in other professional settings (e.g. a hospital setting, family practice or clinic).”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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