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Advice on smartphone use within the practice

GPs and practice staff must consider data security and confidentiality when using smartphones at work, explains MDDUS medical adviser Dr Barry Parker.

GPs and staff should not use personal phones to store or record patient information (Picture: iStock)
GPs and staff should not use personal phones to store or record patient information (Picture: iStock)

The use of smartphones and tablets has increased rapidly in recent years and healthcare professionals are no exception to this trend.

But when it comes to using these devices to help the delivery of patient care, GPs and practice staff must consider data security and issues of confidentiality.

Smartphones or tablets can be used to access the growing number of clinical apps available. These apps may be beneficial for diagnosing and treating illnesses and for drug information, although healthcare professionals should ensure they are from a reliable source.

Doctors may, in addition, be tempted to use devices for medical photography or data storage purposes, which can lead to serious consequences.

Risks of using smartphones

MDDUS has dealt with cases where doctors, with the best intentions, have found themselves in professional difficulties resulting from the use of these devices at work. Taking pictures of patients or storing any patient data on personal devices may result in local disciplinary procedures or even GMC referral.

It is more than likely that employing organisations or contracting bodies will have IT policies that expressly forbid the use of personal devices in the delivery of patient care because of the very clear risk of a serious breach of confidentiality.

Therefore, staff should refrain from using personal smartphones or tablets for recording purposes in the course of their work.

Lost or stolen smartphones holding identifiable patient recordings or pictures are a particular hazard and the doctor concerned may be held individually responsible in the event of an accidental breach of confidentiality of this kind.

Under the Data Protection Act, personal data must be processed lawfully and in line with the seventh data protection principle that: ‘appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.’

The GMC’s Confidentiality guidance makes it clear that any personal patient information that you hold or control must be ‘effectively protected at all times against improper disclosure. You must make sure that anyone you disclose personal information to understands that you are giving it to them in confidence, which they must respect.’

Visual and audio recordings

In relation to making and using visual and audio recordings of patients, the GMC also advises ‘recordings made as part of the patient’s care form part of the medical record and should be treated in the same way as written material in terms of security and decisions about disclosures.

‘You should explain to the patient why a recording would assist their care, what form the recording will take, and that it will be stored securely.’

Of course, a doctor may feel that it would be helpful to take a photograph of a patient in the course of clinical care that could be used in discussion with colleagues or for teaching purposes. However, the use of personal devices for taking and storage of images is not advisable.

Clearly, doctors should also be mindful that consent must be obtained from patients before making recordings. Patients must be fully informed in advance about the nature of the recording and how it will be stored and used as well as with whom it will be shared, in order that they may provide properly informed consent.

It is understandable that the use of smartphones by doctors is now commonplace, with the technology providing new opportunities to help in the delivery of patient care. Doctors should not, however, be tempted to use personal devices to record and store patient data.

Key points to consider when using smartphones at work:
  • Ensure clinical apps are from a reliable source
  • Do not be tempted to use personal devices to record and store data
  • Ensure security of patient data and respect confidentiality
  • Lost or stolen smartphones holding identifiable patient recordings or pictures are a particular hazard
  • Ensure informed consent is gained before recording patients

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