Phone-fondling docs, nurses sling patient info around willy-nilly

Anyone ever heard of encryption?

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UK doctors and nurses routinely share sensitive patient information via their smartphones, we're told.

Two in three or 65 per cent of doctors at Imperial College London have used text messages to communicate with colleagues about a patient, and half (46 per cent) have used picture messaging on their smartphone to send a photograph of a wound or an x-ray, according to a new survey by the British Medical Journal.

The results are based on a survey of more than 2,000 doctors and 4,000 nurses at five hospital sites. The survey (results abstract below) found that smartphone possession was high among healthcare pros. Doctors and nurses were using smartphone apps to communicate medical data, even though they realized that this might not be the best approach, in the absence of a more secure alternative.

98.9 per cent of doctors and 95.1 per cent of nurses owned a smartphone, while 73.5 per cent and 64.7 per cent owned a tablet device, respectively. Also, 92.6 per cent of the doctors and 53.2 per cent of nurses found their smartphone to be 'very useful' or 'useful' in helping them to perform their clinical duties, while 89.6 per cent of doctors and 67.1 per cent of nurses owning medical apps were using these as part of their clinical practice.

Doctors and nurses were using short-message-script messaging (64.7 per cent and 13.8 per cent, respectively), app-based messaging (33.1 per cent and 5.7 per cent), and picture messaging (46.0 per cent and 7.4 per cent) (p=0.0001 for all modalities) to send patient-related clinical information to their colleagues. Therefore, 71.6 per cent of doctors and 37.2 per cent of nurses wanted a secure means of sending such information.

Security vendors said that health sector data exchange practices needed an urgent check-up.

Dr Nithin Thomas, founder and chief exec of security startup SQR Systems, commented: "Smartphones are the perfect tool for medical professionals to communicate with their peers swiftly and efficiently to better tackle difficult health concerns, but this should not come at the expense of patient confidentiality and privacy. It is not only the data that is stored on the devices but every conversation through text, voice, or video using an app that is potentially exposing sensitive data that can be exploited by criminals."

Tony Pepper, chief exec of Egress Software Technologies, said UK hospitals and clinics need to rethink their communication systems to give busy healthcare professionals a convenient and secure data exchange alternative.

"While the medical staff may just be trying to do their jobs more efficiently through sending a quick text or picture message, they are clearly not aware of the risk this creates for both the patient and wider organization – or they don't have easy access to the information security measures they need, such as encryption," Pepper said.

"People will continue to look to use the simplest ways to share information, especially when they need to do so quickly and efficiently, such as in healthcare. It is therefore up to these organizations to provide usable and secure encryption technologies to protect patients' sensitive information, as well as educating employees in best practice." ®

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