WhatsApp becomes a Tool of choice for Clinicians during COVID-19

According to the NHS, clinicians have been using messaging services like Whatsapp to communicate with individuals seeking medical help. The NHS has seen a surge of patients and this allows it to be able to manage some of the patients remotely. However, the method may challenge many legal aspects of the doctor-patient confidentiality, patient anonymity and data protection.

The clinicians have been allowed to do sp “where the benefits outweigh the risk”. This may be for helping a suspected patient, to share information about coronavirus, or to enable better awareness on the subject for individuals seeking medical attention. According to the new NHSX guidance, this is permissible. Dire conditions demand daring methods after all.

During the time of this pandemic, the focus on sharing information is slightly shifting and taking a new form. It has softened from “how you share it” to “what information you share and who you share it with”. The ICO guidelines also suggest that there is great leniency around data protection during this time given that the data privacy is not breached on purpose, out of non-seriousness or repeatedly.

The NHS website says that “The important thing, as always, is to consider what type of information you are sharing and with whom. And as much as possible limit the use of personal/confidential patient information.”  

The guidance, endorsed by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the National Data Guardian and NHS Digital, allows the use of personal devices should they be needed in the face of this health emergency for health workers. This can help in improving health delivery to all individuals and motivate people to discuss their issues with relevant professionals with greater ease.

Healthcare professionals may also take the support of video conferencing for consultations, mobile messaging and home working. However, this is allowed only “where there is no practical alternative”. Given all of this, the NHS and the ICO both require the workers to ensure the privacy of the individuals sharing data with them. There should not be any malignant use or abuse of the data even in the given circumstances.

Clinicians are required to ensure safety and protect patient data, including ways such as setting strong passwords; using secure channels to communicate such as apps that use encryption, and not storing personal or confidential information unless it will be “absolutely necessary”.

Furthermore, the “Information should be safely transferred to the appropriate health and care record as soon as it is practical to do so,” according to the NHSX said.

The guidance allows the use of tools such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime in order to communicate and manage patients. This should help in controlling the surge of viral cases and the burden on the hospitals.

One of the main things in this is that “The consent of the patient or service user is implied by them accepting the invite and entering the consultation. But you should safeguard personal/confidential patient information in the same way you would with any other consultation,” the guidance suggests.

A statement from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said: “Data protection and electronic communication laws do not stop the Government, the NHS or any other health professionals from sending public health messages to people, either by phone, text or emails’, these messages are for the public interest and these messages do not qualify as direct marketing or spam.

The regulator has confirmed in their regulations for the COVID-19 time that they will be using “the compelling public interest in the current health emergency” should there be any conflict at this time.

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