Smartphones help medicos, but security is a problem

It's great that doctors can email pictures of you to experts, but not when they use default apps

An Australian doctor has warned the profession that while smartphones provide good support for telemedicine, medicos need to remember they're not secure by default.

Dr Paul Stevenson is lead author of a paper abstract in the Medical Journal of Australia. In it, he warns doctors that if they're careless with images they use in clinical settings, they're exposing themselves to both ethical and legal risk.

The paper looks at the smartphone in dermatology, and concludes that it's a very handy tool. In particular, Stevenson writes, images taken by a practitioner in a remote location are easily good enough for a specialist in the city to provide an accurate diagnosis.

However, doctors aren't particularly security-savvy, and that has Stevenson worried.

For example, instead of using a secure app that's tailored to clinical settings, the paper notes, doctors fall prey to convenience, passing around images as either MMSs or in ill-secured e-mails.

If practitioners have to use e-mail, Stevenson strongly suggests a secured e-mail service (for example, Vulture South would point to Gmail delivered over HTTPS, rather than an ISP-hosted e-mail account; even a hospital-provided account might not be as secure as Gmail).

He adds that practitioners probably need to be reminded to delete messages from their “sent” folder, and to avoid including identifying information (including tattoos) in photos if they can.

The issue of consent is also important, the paper states: “Practitioners should obtain consent for taking images, explain how they will be used, apply appropriate security in their digital communications, and delete images and other data on patients from personal devices after saving these to patient health records.”

All sensible stuff, but Vulture South can't help wondering if it wouldn't be better for the profession to fund what would surely be a relatively manageable cost to develop a suitable application, so doctors don't have to try and learn about security. ®

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