Your doctor's iPhone could save your life

by Erica Cohen

Smartphones are the latest craze. Nearly everyone has one. You walk down the street and see person after person tapping away on their iPhone, Droid, or BlackBerry. However, each person uses his or her smartphone differently. Some mostly browse the web, others check Facebook and Twitter, and others send or receive email. 

Arguably the best possible use of a smartphone would be to save lives.

Physicians now use smartphone programs, particularly iPhone apps, to assist in diagnosing, treating, and monitoring patients. They have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of medical apps ranging from drug reference programs like Epocrates to programs that help calculate the appropriate insulin requirement for a diabetic patient.

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary, Canada even developed a stroke diagnostic app that is between 94% and 100% accurate in diagnosing an acute stroke.

These apps bring technology that was once only available in large, high-tech facilities to rural areas with limited resources. They connect physicians in remote areas with specialists thousands of miles away who can read and interpret essential diagnostic tests almost instantaneously.

Smartphone apps let physicians pick up their iPhones and instantly research a particular drug interaction or a rare disease they have never encountered before. Those who use certain electronic health records systems are even able to access patient information from their devices.

Despite the benefits of medical smartphone apps such as these, they do not come free of risks. For example, apps may be unreliable. Anyone can create one. It is essential for doctors to vet the programs they use and ensure that they were created by a reputable person, organization or company. Doctors must be especially wary about consulting apps they happen upon for medical and diagnostic advice because the information they contain may not be accurate.

Physicians should be extremely careful when using apps that manage patients’ personal health information to ensure that the data is safeguarded appropriately. If a physician enters confidential patients’ personal health information into an app, he or she must ensure that the app is handling that data appropriately and legally.

Data breaches may occur not only in the computer processes used by the app, but also on the physician’s own device. If they do not encrypt their smartphones, physicians run the risk that patients’ personal health information could be compromised if their device is lost or stolen. Even simple email communication may contain patients’ confidential information that could be released if the smartphone does not have adequate security protection.

While most institutions that allow physicians mobile access to patients’ personal health information mandate stringent security measures including password protection, encryption, and limiting the number of messages stored on the device, some physicians with personal devices access patients’ personal health information without following security guidelines. Smartphone use that does not provide adequate security may violate hospital policy and even result in financial or criminal penalties under HIPAA, the federal law that protects patient privacy. 

While physician smartphone use should be encouraged, especially as developers release more high-tech apps, hospitals should implement stiff penalties for physicians who breach hospital confidentiality policy and HIPAA guidelines.

If doctors aren’t smart about their smartphone use, who knows where your confidential information could end up.

Erica Cohen is a third-year law student concentrating in health law at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law. She graduated from the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a major in online journalism and minors in business and political science. Prior to attending law school, she worked for DKMS Americas, the world's largest bone marrow donor center. She currently works as a legal intern in the office of general counsel at a local hospital.

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