MDU issues confidentiality warning over doctors' use of messaging apps

Doctors using instant messaging apps to communicate with colleagues are being advised to avoid sharing patient identifiable information.

Doctors using instant messaging apps to communicate with colleagues are being advised to check their organisation's policy and to avoid sharing patient identifiable information.

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) issued the advice in its Student Notes journal, but says the advice is applicable to qualified doctors too.

MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Ellie Mein said:

'Instant messaging apps are commonly used by doctors to improve communication within teams. However, around a third of the doctors surveyed said they've used WhatsApp or other web-based messaging apps to send clinical information, and this raises some ethical concerns regarding patient confidentiality and data protection rules.

'The NHS recognises that messaging apps can help doctors to co-ordinate efficient and safe patient care, particularly in emergency situations such as after the Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks. NHS staff also relied on messaging apps following the WannaCry ransomeware attack of 2017, which disabled many NHS communications systems.

'If clinicians choose to use instant messaging, they should make sure it is approved by their organisation in their professional role and follow any local trust policies. They should also comply with their ethical obligations around confidentiality, and with data protection rules.

'In addition, if you are sending images of patients, even if they will be anonymised, you will need to make sure the patient has consented not only to their photograph being taken, but also it being shared via instant messaging.'

Recent guidance from NHS England suggests further safeguards, including:

  • the need to balance the privacy risks of using instant messaging versus the potential benefits in specific situations
  • minimise the extent of patient identifiable information sent over instant messaging
  • instant messaging threads are no substitute for comprehensive, legible medical records
  • double check the message is going to the correct intended recipient(s) before hitting send
  • make sure that messages cannot be read on your device's lock-screen.

Read the Student Notes journal at

This page was correct at publication on 13/11/2019. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.