A social networking app called 'Figure 1' dubbed the 'Instagram for doctors', allows medical professionals to share photos and comments of interesting or baffling clinical cases with the goal of providing advice, education, and treatment options. But does it put patient privacy at risk?

Hamburguer menu icon

This article contains:

    Anyone can download the app and view the material posted on the platform, but only healthcare professionals can post images or make comments.

    Any images posted to Figure 1 must have any physical details that could identify patients (faces, tattoos, piercings etc.) obscured or removed using the in-app tools. According to Figure 1, these images are then reviewed by moderators to verify that all identifying information has been properly removed.

    However, while the in-app tools help maintain patient anonymity, there may be situations where a patient’s symptoms are so unique that, by virtue of the fact, they could be easily identified.

    Figure 1 claims to take the issue of patient privacy extremely seriously, however, Dr Landy the creator of the app admitted that control of the patient consent process was out of their hands — it still remains the responsibility of the medical professional or institution.

    Risks and concerns

    The question of data security is all important in this particular case, because a data breach could be personally damaging for patients, and financially costly for medical practitioners and institutions alike.

    As a patient, here are four questions you might like to ask your health care provider.

    • What assurances do you have that your data is being handled appropriately?
    • If your privacy is relying on any kind of human moderator, who's watching the moderators?
    • How is your personally identifiable data securely disposed of, and when?
    • Does your provider have suitable data breach prevention policies, and are all their employees familiar with them?

    Even though some companies and their employees may have the best intentions for their customers, not having proper measures in place can result in actions that have serious implications — as was the case with the 56 Dean Street clinic in London.

    The Figure 1 app is an example of how technology can democratize knowledge to improve the speed and delivery of essential information that can make a real difference to people’s lives.

    However, technologies that handle extremely confidential information must be tempered with the right controls to avoid privacy breaches at all costs.