There are risks to the unthinking use of everyday tech, from Alexa to WhatsApp, and the consequences – for staff, students and their institutions – can be severe. Bernadette John argues that digital professionalism is the answer.
You’re at your GP’s surgery, talking to your doctor about a delicate medical matter. She suggests you might find some physiotherapy helpful and … suddenly you hear Alexa pipe up with the name and phone number of a physio.
Or perhaps your consultant has shared a scan with some colleagues for a second opinion. You’re pleased she’s working collaboratively but … she’s shared it using a WhatsApp group. Which means that your personal image may well have been downloaded onto each of the doctors’ – or medical students’ – personal devices and stored in their unencrypted photo galleries.
Bernadette John has come across both these situations. As an experienced clinical tutor – and formerly a public health nurse and midwife – she’s deeply concerned about the lack of risk assessment around the everyday technology that’s used as a matter of course by clinicians.
“Many doctors I know exchange images of medical notes, clinical images and blood results on WhatsApp,”
“And they consider it to be secure and encrypted but they haven't realised that if they share an image on WhatsApp, it's downloaded by default into my Apple iCloud, and networked between all of my devices. It’s a security risk and we need to be considering the threat to privacy of the people we discuss and we are engaged in researching.”
For Bernadette it’s a matter of what she terms “digital professionalism”: the competence or values expected of a professional when engaged in social and digital communication. It’s a field she’s made her own since initiating it at King’s College London Medical School in 2012 (she’s now at University College Cork) and she’s passionate about training staff and students to think more seriously about the information and images they consciously, or unconsciously, share.
“People are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. They're not aware of what their obligations are with regards to the tech in their pockets, they're just using it for work without mindfully considering what the risks and benefits are and making a balanced and informed decision about it.”
From maths to law, nursing to dentistry, Bernadette finds the same issues come up again and again in the training sessions she delivers to students. Digital communications, including smartphones and smart speakers, and social media are presenting challenges to young people in how they present themselves to the world. The consequences may be immediate but their online actions may equally have an impact on their future careers much further down the line.
Bernadette has compelling examples of students who have missed out on sporting scholarships to American universities and colleges thanks to Facebook photos revealing heavy drinking below the US legal age of 21 or inappropriate Instagram pictures that affect employability in more conservative professions.
“The consequences for individual students can be severe. They can become unemployable, and I have certainly seen that,”
“We need to actively train students in what we expect of them with regard to how they carry themselves on social channels, and to make it explicit. We need to show them scenarios where things haven't worked out well for others, and ask them to explore those scenarios. But we can't do that without also doing it for the staff.”
Bernadette is a fan of compulsory and regular training in digital professionalism, ensuring a good grounding in what the current platforms are, what their terms and conditions say, what their rights and permissions are and how things are published. She also argues for e-learning modules tailored to the user, with scenarios applicable to students in different disciplines.
There is also a role for the institution in relation to monitoring and regulating the extent to which employees or students who handle sensitive information are allowed to use their own devices.
There are ways to share this kind of data safely. Bernadette points to the use of iPhones by doctors and clinical researchers in the US.
There, a hospital buys devices specifically for medics to communicate while at work, with that communication controlled by a system called Voalte. When the doctor leaves work, they hand that device to the person who is taking over from them or leave it in a secure area. If they walk off the premises with the device, it is automatically wiped. And all the apps are locked down so there is no potential for iCloud to be grabbing pictures or Facebook to be downloading contacts.
“Here they could use a secure, GDPR-compliant PDF creator app to take an image, and email it with their secure university email, or their Microsoft OneDrive that they've been issued, which is GDPR compliant, as opposed to using Dropbox or Google Drive. That risk assessment isn’t currently happening and it risks the security and integrity of the research that we generate and the privacy of our research subjects.
“We need to work together, risk assess each other and help each other to make informed decisions about what we do online,”