LATEST TWEETS

Does your back garden have the potential space in which to build another property? https://t.co/C55V8eKTsX
Christmas is a time for giving (and inheritance planning) https://t.co/EwrbgU0IcR
Recently separated or divorced? Time to update your will to protect your assets - find out how https://t.co/PEHHNaX9Lq
What are the key terms to be included in a commercial lease? https://t.co/OPJIUzrZOx

Social Media: The unconscious privacy threat

A patient who is unconscious in an Intensive Care Unit is at their most vulnerable.  Often fighting for their life, the individual is not in control of their body or of their surroundings. In a busy hospital ward, an unconscious patient is seen by many people, from doctors and nurses, catering and cleaning staff to their relatives and friends.

Sharing of photographs of patients online

The prevalence of social media and mobile technology in this digital age poses a specific threat to patient privacy.  Particularly if the patient has experienced emergency and trauma and is unconscious. Any posting online of a photograph of a patient receiving care without their consent is likely to amount to a misuse of their personal information and a breach of their data protection rights, as too is a description of their medical condition. An unconscious patient is unable to take part in any discussions or consent to any sharing of their personal information. The patient has been denied the opportunity to have any control over the amount or timing of the information that is disclosed, and their personal information has been shared publicly without their knowledge or permission.

Nowadays, most people carry on their person a mobile phone with an integrated camera. It takes seconds for a photograph to be taken and then uploaded online on the same device. Within minutes the photograph may have been viewed by thousands of people online.  It is clear that doctors who share images of their patients over the internet without patient consent are acting outside their ethical and legal obligations. Fortunately, the scenario of surgeons posting photographs online of unconscious patients on the operating table is not common. However, there are other ways in which a patient’s privacy and confidentiality can be threatened by social media.

Well-meaning friends and relatives can take photographs of their loved one in intensive care to share with wider friends and family via social media platforms, together with the story of the patient’s injury and treatment, in order to spread the word about their circumstances and to share their own traumatic experience. In some instances, where the circumstances that resulted in the patient being in ICU are unknown, the patient’s relatives can seek to share photos and other personal information in an attempt to discover information about the events that led to their loved one’s injury. If appropriate privacy settings are not in place, these details can be shared across the world within an instant.

It is also important for family and friends to recognise that even if a patient is not identified specifically from a photograph there remains a risk of ‘jigsaw’ identification. Distinctive markings such as tattoos and birth marks can give away a patient’s identity to people that know them, as can their jewellery, clothes and even belongings surrounding the hospital bed.

At this distressing and stressful time relatives are understandably often not thinking straight and can be focussing on their loved one’s fight to stay alive and on their own emotions, rather than on the patient’s privacy rights. However, the online publication of photographs of and/or posts about an unconscious patient can be detrimental to the individual’s privacy and dignity, potentially damaging to their reputation, as well as extremely upsetting for them to learn about when they regain consciousness. An ITU patient is usually wearing only an insubstantial hospital gown which reveals much of their body and is likely to be attached to various tubes, wires and other medical equipment. They will also be showing various physical signs of being seriously unwell. This is unlikely to be an image that they are keen to share with the world. Also, the nature of the patient’s illness and/or the circumstances that led to it may not be information that the patient is comfortable with being in the public domain. An online post remains permanently discoverable on the internet, even after it has been deleted. The potential longer-term implications of such violations of privacy for the patient are rarely thought through and could have a significant detrimental impact on their life, and even their mental health.

It is also possible for well-intentioned relatives to use the patient’s own mobile phone, tablet or laptop, enabled with automatic log-in to social media platforms, to post details of the patient’s plight onto their own social media feeds, ostensibly on the patient’s behalf.  This may constitute unauthorised access to computer material under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which is a criminal offence.

Whilst the prospect of legal action by a recovered patient against a family member or friend is unlikely, it is by no means impossible.  In order to minimise patient suffering and to protect a patient’s right to privacy, it is vital that family members consider all implications carefully before publishing their loved one’s personal information online.

What is the responsibility of the hospitals in these situations?

Doctors and nurses owe a duty of confidentiality to all those that are receiving care and are under both ethical and legal duties to protect patients’ personal information from improper disclosure.

To assist them in discharging their duty of care to their patients, hospitals would benefit from adopting a social media policy which expressly covers protecting the privacy rights of patients, particularly those that are unconscious. The social media policy should include provision for some brief guidelines to be distributed to the relatives and friends of patients in ITU relating to use of social media to share information about their loved one’s circumstances.  These guidelines should gently remind them of the patient’s privacy rights and provide details of online activities that may conflict with those rights, as well as listing some of the potential long term effects of sharing personal information online without patient consent.

Laura Baglow is Head of NetRights, the Social Media, Internet and Media Law department of Parnalls Solicitors. For legal advice and assistance about misuse of private information, data protection and privacy rights, including social media policies, please contact Laura at enquiries@netrights.co.uk or telephone 01566 772375. Find out more about NetRights here.

The contents of this article are for purposes of general awareness only and do not constitute legal or professional advice.

MORE NEWS

Landowners’ rights and the Electronic Communications Code

Building in your back garden

Christmas is a time for giving (and inheritance planning)

Buying the freehold of your leasehold house

Redeveloping an empty pub for commercial use

Why it takes time to obtain the Grant of Probate

Social Media: The unconscious privacy threat

Is your reputation being threatened?

Making a will after your spouse or partner has died

Interns celebrate completion of internship at solicitors

Selling your home in a flat market, some top tips

Claiming compensation for a serious road traffic accident

New Media and Communications Court list reflects surge in internet defamation claims by Laura Baglow

Has your personal information been shared without your permission?

Planning your escape to the country, what you need to consider – part 2

Government consultation on new national model for shared ownership

Choosing a partnership structure

Planning for what happens when you die by Deborah Adams

Changes to legislation could offer protection for tenants in the private rental sector

Move to the country - Part One

The risks of DIY probate

Will your septic tank still be legal in January?

The death knell for ‘kiss and tell’?

Making a will when you retire

Selling your property at auction

Not looking so good - your guide to compensation for botched non-surgical cosmetic procedures

New threshold of seriousness in defamation proceedings

Legal considerations when building a granny annex

Choosing the right person for your power of attorney

Formal Interviews - Do you need legal representation?

Privacy rights and aerial images

Trustees’ duty to give information to beneficiaries

Five problems with a leasehold property

Taking your first commercial lease

Is your organisation protected from employee social media legal risk?

Have you been targeted by negative social media posts?

Farmers be alert when being inspected

Help for House Sellers?

Don’t let your digital assets end up in a digital grave

Valuing an estate for probate

Development proposals and your local authority search

What can you do if your child is injured in a serious accident

NetRights welcomes new protection for social media users

SHOULD I GET A LAWYER FOR A SPEEDING OFFENCE?

Supreme Court recognises that social media is a “casual medium” in libel battle

Choosing the best conveyancer who is right for you

Making a will after a second or subsequent marriage

Option or promotion agreement – which is best for landowners?

Anonymous pub and restaurant online reviews leave a bad taste

Have you had an accident involving a horse?

Help to Buy – beware of some cracks in the structure

Understanding Lasting Powers of Attorney

Changes to Energy Performance Certificate for Landlords

Had a cycling accident? Your route to obtaining compensation

New year, new home: tips to sell your home in the New Year 

Tax Planning for your inheritance

Hearing loss: when your employer may be liable

Buying a home for your retirement, five things you need to consider

Farmers plan to diversify after Brexit

Ministers press ahead with probate fee shake-up - reports BBC News

Botched dental treatment? You may be entitled to compensation

Why a Health and Welfare Power of Attorney is a good idea

Will the new charge on building developments in Cornwall affect you?

Energy Performance Certificates – Do They Matter?

HMRC Challenging Stamp Duty Land Tax Payments

Ben Mitchell qualifies as a solicitor

The potential implications of Brexit on employment law

Appointing a guardian for your children

Houses in multiple occupation – new rules from October 2018

New Agriculture Bill published

Will Brexit affect my pension?

Dreaming of a holiday home? Sort out the legals before putting your feet up

Lasting Power of Attorney by Deborah Adams

Settled status after Brexit by Alexis Hager

How to choose an executor to administer your estate when you die

How overage agreements can boost profits from your land

Top tips for first-time buyers

How Could Brexit Affect My Farm?

Wills & Succession in Spain by Deborah Adams

Brexit ­– an international and local view by Alexis Hager, Litigation

Capital gains tax - important facts for non-residents of the UK

Buying a home: the importance of making sure the seller is entitled to sell

Changing a will after someone has died: it is possible and it could save you money

Your responsibilities when you have people working in your home

Sad passing of Battle of Britain pilot who served with Parnall family member

Considerations when buying a heritage property

Disciplinary proceedings at work: guide for employers

Employers should have a disciplinary process in place, but just following this may not be enough to avoid falling foul of the law and exposing yourself to the risk of an employment tribunal claim.

Selling your land through a conditional contract

Why you should always use a solicitor to prepare your will

Putting your legal affairs in order

How to extend a lease on a flat or buy a share of the freehold

Delayed Health Checks

New Marketing Team at Parnalls Solicitors Ltd

Social media: snooping in the recruitment process

A landlord's guide to tenant alterations

Equity release, your questions answered

Short term lettings: avoiding the pitfalls

How to apply for a grant of probate

Are you entitled to a fee refund for your Lasting Power of Attorney?

What to do when someone dies

Business disputes: can they ever be avoided?

Accident at work: what to do and when if you have been injured

Director appointment

What type of will do I need?

Business rates: a financial ticking time bomb (Part 2)

Conveyancing quotes: what you need to know

New appointment in Litigation

Property boundaries and rights of access: what are they and why do they matter?

Mental Health - we can get you the help you need

Business rates: a financial ticking time bomb (Part 1)

Leaving a gift to charity in your will

Parnalls helps two leading Devon organic meat companies to become one

Katherine Flashman Kitson is appointed Governor of St Joseph's School, Launceston

Financing your home purchase (Part 2)

New rules on debt recovery may delay payment of consumer debts

Making financial gifts during your lifetime (Part 2)

Our Guide to Lasting Powers of Attorney for Your Business Interests

Financing your home purchase (Part 1)

Careless replies to pre-contract commercial property enquiries could land you in trouble

Making financial gifts during your lifetime (Part 1)

Property referrals and recommendations - what to consider

World Alzheimer’s Day: Three-step plan to get your legal affairs in order

Legal considerations when setting up a business (Part 2)

How to avoid falling victim to property fraud

What are the key terms that need to be covered in a commercial lease? Part 3

Top 10 reasons to use a solicitor to make your lasting power of attorney

What legal considerations do I need to think about when setting up a business? (Part 1)

Why you need to update your will as soon as you decide to separate or divorce

What are the key terms that need to be covered in a commercial lease?  Part 2

The Bank of Mum and Dad: top tips when lending money to your children  

DON’T ACCEPT 50/50 ON AN ACCIDENT IN A COUNTRY LANE

The importance of insurance when life trips you up

The role of a court appointed deputy

What are the key terms that need to be covered in a commercial lease?

Ten common debt recovery mistakes

How do I know if my relative has the mental capacity to make a will?

Motorcycle accidents - what to consider when claiming compensation

Top tips for pushing your house purchase through as quickly as possible

How does the new inheritance tax perk work?

The ultimate personal injury and accident claim checklist

Jargon-busting guide to Lasting Power of Attorney

10 reasons to appoint a Personal Injury solicitor

What happens when mum or dad are ill and can’t make decisions?

How firms can take advantage of the rise of alternative finance

Should Stamp Duty be abolished?

Teenager paralysed after falling off a horse awarded £3 million in compensation

RBS to pay investors £800 million

Not happy with your accident claim lawyers?

Parnalls expands its litigation team

Hard work pays off for our Trainee Legal Executive.

Katherine Scott Flashman Kitson celebrates 20 years

How will the new Residence Nil Rate Band (RNRB) affect you?

Exciting new business hub unveiled in North Cornwall

Be careful what you post on Facebook

Parnalls rolls out the support at Wadebridge Wheels

New trainee solicitor appointed

Mark Parnall comments on Brexit in The Law Society Gazette