Privacy & Security
WhatsApp widely used by docs in United Kingdom
August 9, 2017
London, UK – Even though Great Britain’s National Health Service prohibits doctors from using the Internet for transmitting patient information, the BBC reports that a significant number of physicians are using WhatsApp and other web-based programs to communicate with each other.
Dr. Georgie Gould, a physician who last year conducted her own study of how doctors were communicating, found 30% of surgeons at St. Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey, were using WhatsApp as part of their day-to-day communication.
It bears out similar findings published in the British Medical Journal, which found that of 2,000 doctors across five hospitals, a third were using web-based apps to send clinical information.
An NHS trauma surgeon, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: “We use WhatsApp because it’s the quickest and easiest way to communicate with a whole team or group of clinicians.
“So, if you’re responding to a major incident, you can have the whole team involved and see what’s coming [in terms of patient injuries] so teams can be ready.”
“It can also be really helpful for junior clinicians to communicate with senior colleagues – to send images of X-rays and get quick advice on the best course of action. However, we only use initials or bed number information, we don’t identify patients.”
According to NHS England’s guidelines, the use of WhatsApp is strictly banned for the purposes of sending patient data.
Instead, doctors are required to contact each other by pager or fax – technologies that are considered obsolete in other industries.
“The process is lengthy,” said Dr Gould. “If you want to send images, you have to fill in a form and give it in by hand.”
Contacting colleagues by pager – which involves locating a landline, dialing a four-digit number and waiting for a reply – was equally cumbersome, she said.
Dr. Gould said clearer guidelines could solve the problem. “Most doctors know that it is not OK to use full names, but are initials OK?
“Is it OK to say, ‘The lady in Bed 2 is running a temperature’?
“I think that the problems could be easily solved without throwing huge amounts of money at it,” she said. “It needs a separate app for medical conversations, with its own password,” she said.
Dr. Felix Jackson, who runs MedCrowd, a digital messaging service for health workers, told the BBC he saw use of WhatsApp while he was working as an anaesthetist.
“Such platforms are used extensively, but it is against the law,” he said.
Anonymising data meant doctors might “just about get away with it,” he added, but that would not continue forever.
“No major error has come to light yet, but it is only a matter of time before a senior doctor leaves his or her phone on the train and someone gets hold of all the conversations about patients and suddenly someone’s HIV status is made public,” he said.