So what is WhatsApp? WhatsApp is a texting service between mobile phones. It is used as a replacement for the regular SMS text messages. The advantage of this app is that it uses a wifi connection for messages instead of a mobile phone service. Therefore, texting and sharing photos on WhatsApp are free. This is very useful when travelling internationally. A user can message people one-on-one, or set up a group in your phone contacts list to keep in touch with people you know. WhatsApp currently has over a billion users internationally, and this figure grows daily.
You might already use this, or another wifi-based messaging app, to keep in touch with friends and family. However, can one use WhatsApp professionally? It was recently reported that members of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors’ committee used WhatsApp to talk about strike action. But was this a one off? Are medical professionals using WhatsApp to discuss patient information? If so what are the ethical and legal implications of doing so?
An investigation by Imperial College London, UK found that sensitive health information and pictures of patients are regularly sent between doctors via text message. Of doctors interviewed, 65% admitted to using text messages to send patient information, and 46% sent clinical pictures to colleagues. Nurses were less likely to share information in this manner, with 14% using text messages, 6% using text applications and 7% using picture messaging.
A spokesman for the campaign group medConfidential stated concerns: ‘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.” Patient confidentiality is of paramount importance to both patients and health care providers. There are some secure texting formats implemented by large medical groups in the US, but expense is prohibitive. WhatsApp makes it quicker and easier for patients and physicians to communicate regarding health issues when other platforms are not available. WhatsApp can be used world wide wherever an internet connection is available. It has been credited with assisting in tracking the country’s Zika virus outbreak, as doctors used it to share symptoms they were seeing as well as babies’ CT scans. But this hasn’t stopped organisations worldwide from protesting the use of WhatsApp by medical professionals. A recent case was the Dutch privacy organization Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens which issued a cease and desist for Dutch Doctors using WhatsApp. The doctors’ umbrella group KNMG also recommends against using the app but said it cannot force healthcare professionals to stop using it.
Another concern is regarding how WhatsApp exchanges can be documented with the rest of a patient’s electronic medical record. Furthermore, can a WhatsApp conversation be admissible during a malpractice lawsuit? In the UK, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated that patients should be able to access their full GP records on their smartphones within 12 months, with full hospital notes to follow by 2018. Who is responsible for the security of this information, and where does the ownership lie -- patient or professional? All of these issues are yet to be resolved.
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