Following recent developments in healthcare and technology (everyone’s getting in on it lately!), it’s no surprise that a new photo sharing app dubbed ‘Instagram for Doctors’ has been a great success, and is set to be rolled out across western Europe.

Figure 1’ is a medical photo sharing app that brings healthcare professionals (HCPs) together in a global online community to discuss and share medical images of patients (with their permission). HCPs can add cases by uploading photos, as well as make use of the reference image library, search images by anatomy or speciality, and join in discussions.

The app was founded by Canadian Doctor Joshua Landy, MD, who says: “We developed Figure 1 so members of the healthcare community could share images, knowledge, and clinical insight with each other, while safeguarding patient privacy.”

The idea is so simple it’s a wonder nothing like Figure 1 has been launched before. The only services close to what Figure 1 offer require subscription fees, whereas previous methods of file sharing between HCPs, such as email and post (yes, they still use post!) have proved inefficient and slow, while other digital sharing methods, like MMS or WhatsApp, raise security concerns. These older methods still only allow a few to access few images, but with Figure 1 an entire library and forum of over 50 million uploads is available at your fingertips, as is the collective knowledge of thousands of HCPs.

Co-operative Community

Figure 1 is free and currently available in North America, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, with plans to expand quickly.

While anyone can download the app, only verified HCPs (who go through a rigorous identification process) can upload photos or comment on them, ensuring helpful and significant discussion from qualified participants. HCPs are also advised to notify their employers and patients they’re using the app, and both HCPs and patients have to sign a digital consent form before any content can be uploaded.

Figure 1 makes for an excellent medical educational tool for students and qualified HCPs alike. It’s about making useful, real-life medical images easily accessible in a digital community that cares. HCPs can now not only get a second opinion but a third, fourth, fifth, etc. It’s a big breakthrough in harnessing the power of digitisation and social media for medical benefit, something the industry is notoriously slow to pick up on.

So, surely a hub of shared medical expertise can only mean good news?

It would seem not. As with any digital sharing service there are  privacy concerns surrounding Figure 1, particularly as the data being handled is both medical and personal.

However, Figure 1 was actually borne out of security concerns for other sharing methods. Dr Landy saw that doctors and medical students were using smart phones and social media to share information about patients in way that didn’t protect patient privacy or store the records securely.

“Tens of thousands of times a day patient records and educational images are transferred from healthcare provider to healthcare provider,” Dr Landy says. “We were thinking of a way to try and preserve and protect that information in an archive that’s searchable and useful.”

So for Figure 1, security is paramount.

First things first – they safeguard patient privacy. All patient identities are obscured automatically by the app with face detection software, and HCPs can further obscure images if needed, for example to cover other identifying marks like tattoos. With each upload, users can choose whether to share with the entire community, a specific group or just one or two colleagues. Finally, all photographs have to go through a moderation process before they are published.

The company also operate a ‘no secrets’ policy. If you don’t keep any secrets you can’t lose them, so the app doesn’t store or access any patient records whatsoever.

However, online medical data breaches do happen, and it’s not like they’re anything new.  Just earlier this year saw the second largest medical data breach ever recorded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, where a network server hack resulted in 4.5 million individuals being affected. 2013 saw the third largest, which still affected over 4 million people.

However, these cyber-attacks are usually carried out to get patient information, like name, address, contact numbers, payment info, etc. – that can be used for fraud and identity theft. Figure 1 doesn’t store any personal information or anything useful to others though, unless you happen to really like pictures of skin diseases and x-rays.

The only data attached to the image is the user who uploaded it – the HCP. This one factor has still raised concern, GP and author Dr Ellie Cannon says that while she thinks “it’s potentially really useful to share photos with medical students and other doctors,” she feels that there’s an obvious “potential pitfall” in the confidentiality, and that despite patient anonymity, “uploading from a certain doctor may go some way to identify a patient.”

However, Dr Landy claims that “Legally, we found that identifying the doctor does not identify the patient.”

Given that some members of the public will happily expose their strange ailments for the world to see on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, this may not be a great concern to a lot of patients. Nevertheless, Figure 1 looks pretty fool-proof. The company maintain that patient privacy is as much a priority for them as it is for HCPs.

The Bottom Line

Figure 1 offers incredible potential for sharing knowledge and creating new bodies of information globally, all stemming from a simple photograph. As most uploads are typically more complex cases that call for outside input, there’s an abundance of interesting and rare cases that many HCPs might otherwise never see. Getting a global discussion going on a unique case could contribute to huge developments in various medical fields.

The app store page is full of gushing reviews touting its educational potential: “Hands down one of the best apps I have on my phone. App is well put together and there’s never a shortage of fascinating cases. I learn something new every time I’m using it!” Although a fair amount of users do warn not to peruse the feed whilst eating.

On the whole, Figure 1 could greatly contribute to the promising outlook developing in the unfolding healthtech revolution.