Photo-sharing app helps doctors learn, diagnose

Not all physicians can solve mystery cases in 42 minutes or less like Dr. Gregory House. But a new app called Figure 1 – also known as ‘Instagram for doctors’ – allows practitioners to share patient photos and information in order to help one another understand and diagnose rare or complex conditions. “I'm a very visual learner. Most doctors are ... and we like to talk to each other,” third-year medical resident at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial in Texas Sheryll Shipes, who started using the app last year, said. And though Shipes adds that “it’s now my medical guilty pleasure,” but founder and intensive care specialist at Scarborough Hospital in Toronto, Canada Josh Landy guarantees that anonymity, ethics and patient approval are top priorities.

“We know that patient privacy is a priority for healthcare professionals, and we have designed Figure 1 with that firmly in mind. We take patient privacy extremely seriously, and we have worked hard to provide a tool that reflects that,” the Figure 1 website’s frequently asked questions section states. “In your Figure 1 profile, you may identify your name, workplace, and other information about yourself. However, any images you post must have identifying details related to the patient removed.” In fact, the app itself has several built-in tools to enable doctors to comply with patient privacy, such as an automatic face-blocking feature, or a manual block feature that allows users to remove patient identifiers such as names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, social security or medical record numbers, and more.

Additionally, a medical officer and a team of moderators review each uploaded image to make sure all identifying elements have been removed before it can be seen on the app. As such, the pictures are exempt from HIPAA’s Privacy Rule in the United States, privacy legislation in Canada (such as PHIPA in Ontario), or similar legislation in other jurisdictions around the world. Finally, Figure 1 includes a “tap, type, and sign” consent form” for jurisdictions or medical facilities that require written patient consent. The website also points out that even if a doctor doesn’t have patient consent or works at a facility that forbids photographing patients, he or she can still access images posted by others and learn from them or use them as reference – and even help others like Shipes by commenting on a picture. “I uploaded it (a photo of a patient with a skin disorder which is rare in the U.S. but common in Latin America and Asia) to Figure-1 and someone told us exactly what it was,” the medical resident said. “We would never have known that one. It’s classical medicine, digitized.”

Figure 1 was inspired by medical students used stethoscopes and mobile devices alike to make a diagnosis. “We looked at how people are using their smart phones,” Landy said. “I wanted a way to present all those cases ... to create a global knowledge notebook.” Launched in May 2013, it is currently available in 19 countries in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and across Europe, with more to come in the near future. The app is free, but new users are asked for occupational information when they register, and only healthcare practitioners can post pictures and make comments. Licensed physicians, nurses, physician assistants, medical students, and nursing students can be verified on Figure 1, and verification for other healthcare professionals will be added soon.