Figure 1: Raising Questions About Patient Privacy
What if we told you that anyone from anywhere in the world could access images of your medical injuries/conditions (regardless of how disgusting, embarrassing, or private they may be) at any time simply by downloading an app? Freaky, right? And what if we told you that they can do this without asking for your permission? Most people (including ourselves) didn’t believe this was possible. Believe it or not, though, there’s an app that does just that.
Figure 1 is an app developed by Joshua Landy and two other colleagues that was created as a tool that allows doctors to share photos of their patients. Think of it as an Instagram for doctors. The goal was to create a platform for collaboration and communication among doctors globally, a place where doctors could seek advice about treatment and diagnosis from specialists around the country.
The app has been a huge teaching tool for medical students, with more than 40% of all medical students in the U.S. using the app, and has also proven valuable in the clinic as well. There’s a new feature called “paging”, which allows doctors to request specialists to comment on specific photos.
In theory, Figure 1 sounds awesome. Instead of counting on one doctor’s knowledge to diagnose and treat your condition, you have hundreds of thousands of them bouncing ideas and experiences off of each other. Access to more doctors = access to more knowledge and resources which = a better chance of being correctly diagnosed.
The problem, however, is that the app isn’t specific to just doctors and specialists. Anyone can download it. I actually downloaded it this morning, and I spent probably half an hour scrolling through photos that I simply won’t be able to un-see. Ever. Photos that, frankly, if they were of me, I would be mortified that everyone in the world could see.
The app has been growing in popularity, and with access available to anyone the question has been raised: is this a violation of personal privacy? Although HIPAA laws make it illegal for doctors, hospitals, or insurance companies to share anyone’s personal medical information without consent, these laws do not technically apply to “unidentifiable people”.
The app provides ways to remove personal details like faces or tattoos from the images so that photos are technically “unidentifiable” and therefore in compliance with HIPAA, but in many cases the age, gender, and location of the patients are still included with the image. Additionally, the majority of patients have no idea the photos are even being shared.
The concept of the app is definitely a great one, and it’s obvious that Figure 1 can be a great resource both for clinical use and as a teaching tool for medical students. The grey area, however, lies in whether or not the app itself is a violation of patient privacy. We’ve heard arguments for and against the app, so we’re curious to know.
How do you feel about this? Do you think this is a violation of patient privacy? Would you be comfortable with your medical injuries/conditions being shared through the app?
For more details about the app, read a full story about it here.