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The age of consent: digital photography and privacy in general healthcare practice

de Lavaine, Scarlette (2016) The age of consent: digital photography and privacy in general healthcare practice. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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Digital photography can be invaluable in visually oriented medical practice. Providing a visual record, digital photographs aid diagnosis, monitor change and quantify response to therapy. Incorporating digital photography into general practice is growing easier. Widespread ownership of smartphones with inbuilt cameras has stimulated this practice. Smartphone cameras are simple and familiar to use, capture high resolution images that enhance the medical record, expedite advice and, ultimately, can improve patient care.

The development and use of the smartphone is part of a broad wave of accelerated technological change. That change, the information revolution of the last 30 years, has enabled the collection and dissemination of that information on a scale previously unimaginable. It has also changed how Australians treat personal privacy. Personal information can be instantaneously shared, with or without consent, with friends and strangers. Expectations of privacy in younger generations may have dropped, but for many Australians, protection of privacy has become more urgent.

In response, Australia has tried to unify its legal and regulatory approaches to privacy protection through recent amendments to the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). The Australian Privacy Principles were introduced to clarify and govern how personal information, such as healthcare information, can be collected, used and disclosed. The central role of the doctor in the collection and use of healthcare information required specific guidance for the profession. This was achieved through the professional Code of Conduct regulated by the Australian Medical Board.

Despite these legislative and regulatory changes there appears to be a divergence between practitioners’ conduct and their legal and professional obligations when using clinical photography in their healthcare practice. Are doctors aware of the requirements of consent, use and disclosure, and storage security, as they apply to clinical photography? The relevant literature suggested they are not. To explore how technology has impacted privacy this paper examines how the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) affects digital photography used in the clinical management of skin conditions. The paper will describe how well-delineated boundaries of clinical information sharing are blurred in practice, if not in law. It seeks to address the reasons for the apparent knowledge deficit of privacy obligations amongst practitioners.

Doctors looking to understand their privacy obligations will find it difficult; inconsistencies between laws and regulations making the regime challenging to traverse. This paper proposes possible solutions to raising awareness, promoting safer practices and can help mitigate privacy risks. Compliant use of digital photography is a value clinical tool which can facilitate patient care, while not endangering patient privacy.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Law
Supervisor(s): Goodie, Jo and Dent, Chris
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