Reprimand for staff using WhatsApp to share patient data

Health board in Scotland unaware that staff shared information and images for two years

Published: 07 August 2023 Information management & technology

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a reprimand to NHS Lanarkshire, following unauthorised use of WhatsApp by staff to share patients’ personal data.

Between April 2020 and April 2022, 26 staff had access to a WhatsApp group where patient data was entered on more than 500 occasions, including names, phone numbers and addresses. Images, videos and screenshots, which included clinical information, were also shared.

While it was made available for communicating basic information only at the start of the pandemic, WhatsApp was not approved by NHS Lanarkshire for processing patient data and was adopted by these staff without the organisation’s knowledge.

A non-staff member was also added to the WhatsApp group in error, resulting in the inappropriate disclosure of personal information to an unauthorised individual.

No risk assessment

Once NHS Lanarkshire became aware, it reported the incident to the ICO. The ICO’s investigation concluded that NHS Lanarkshire did not have the appropriate policies, clear guidance and processes in place when WhatsApp was made available to download. For example, there was no assessment of the potential risks relating to sharing patient data in this way.

The ICO recommended that NHS Lanarkshire should take action to ensure their compliance with data protection law, including:

  • Consider implementing a secure clinical image transfer system, as part of NHS Lanarkshire’s exploration regarding the storage of images and videos within a care setting.
  • Before deploying new apps, consider the risks relating to personal data and include the requirement to assess and mitigate these risks in any approval process.
  • Ensure explicit communications, instructions or guidance are issued to employees on their data protection responsibilities when new apps are deployed.