Will That Picture Cost You?

In today’s high-tech world, it is natural to want to immediately capture interesting or otherwise noteworthy moments on your cell phone for future viewing or sharing.  As physicians, however, it is imperative that you stop and ask yourself this important question before you take any photo with your personal cell phone, digital camera or other recording device…Is it medically necessary?  If it is, you will want to follow these important steps:

  1. Obtain informed consent as well as the patient’s signature on a release to document the medical finding and the reason for memorializing it.

  2. Have a staff member present to witness the conversation and the actual photo session.

  3. Use an approved, encrypted device which is intended “for office purposes only.”

  4. Store the photo in the official patient record and document the reason for the photograph (e.g., to document progression of a rash).

If the photo is not medically necessary…STOP!  In the last year, there have been multiple stories in the press regarding physicians found to have patient photos on their personal cell phones. They must then try and explain why these images are on their personal devices.  But the truth is that there is no good explanation. You may feel that the photo is benign or you may feel that because the patient cannot be identified in the photo that you are provided some kind of protection under the law.  That is not necessarily the case.  You may not only be looking at civil charges; you very well could be looking at criminal charges.  As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  You don’t want those words to be, “WHY would a physician have that photo on his phone?”  Cell phones are not secure devices, even if they are password protected, and you are responsible for protecting private patient information, including images.

Before you pick up your personal cell phone or any other personal device to snap a picture of your patient, for ANY reason, think twice.  It could save you a lot of headaches and money in the end—because you will find that a picture is worth much more than words.