NHS doctors sharing confidential data via unsecure devices

UK doctors are putting patient confidentiality at risk by using their smartphones to share medical details with others in the profession, a study has found.

A team of researchers, including those from Imperial College London, surveyed 287 doctors and 564 nurses at a large London NHS trust consisting of five individual hospitals.

It found that 65 per cent of doctors said they had used text messages to transmit patient information, while 46 per cent had sent pictures involving patients to colleagues. Examples included sending photographs of wounds or X-rays to other medics to get their opinion.

Nurses were less likely to share personal information, with only 14 per cent using text messages, six per cent using text apps, such as WhatsApp, and seven per cent using picture messaging.

The researchers behind the study said the "lack of data encryption and necessary security" means the sharing of patient information is "currently unsecure and may result in the inadvertent disclosure of highly sensitive and confidential data".

They also warned that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of doctors admitted they still had patient-related clinical information on their smartphones.

The majority of doctors said they would prefer to use their own smartphone instead of one issued to them by the hospital.

90 per cent of doctors were also found to be using medical apps to work out drug formulae, medical calculators and disease diagnosis. Evidence suggests more than 90,000 mobile health apps are available.

The researchers said that this practice could be dangerous for patient care: "Doctors and nurses must also be aware that the medical health apps market is currently under-regulated and that defective apps are capable of causing patient harm."

A spokesman for the campaign group medConfidential said that retaining a patient's clinical data on your phone for longer than necessary “is not only a serious breach of data protection, it could lead to breaches of confidentiality or worse”.

"While no doubt these messages are being sent to facilitate the best care of patients, there are serious concerns about the safety of such sensitive patient information being sent - unencrypted and unsecured in some instances - from personal device to personal device."

He said that the NHS should enforce policies on smartphone usage and introduce secure, encrypted tools for staff.

An NHS England spokeswoman said: "Protecting patient information is crucial. Apps and other online services offer powerful benefits to clinical practice but it's vital that doctors and nurses know which ones are safe to use.

"That's why we have recently begun piloting a new assessment model to help clinicians quickly identify the safest, most robust apps and digital health tools."

Health minister Jeremy Hunt recently announced that patients will be able to access their own GP records from their smartphone or tablet within the next year.

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