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Whatsapp impending privacy changes – clinicians beware!

Clinicians continue to lean on consumer messaging apps to communicate and coordinate patient care. Published literature demonstrates consumer app usage with Whatsapp remains prevalent in Australian healthcare. In a previous article we outlined some of the privacy risks around Whatsapp usage for clinical communication.

A brief history of Facebook and privacy

If it’s free, you’re the product.

Facebook offers its platforms free to users. The primary business objectives are to deliver targeted advertising to users and to offer user data to third parties via its API, in exchange for revenue. As the owner of Whatsapp, Facebook is now moving forward with plans to commercialise the product by implementing changes to its privacy policy which users must accept by May 15th 2021.

This comes on the backdrop of Facebook’s poor track record with consumer privacy. Historically, the company has only acted in a reactive manner to public pressure over privacy issues, rather than lead with a ‘privacy first’ philosophy.

In 2019 Mark Zuckerberg outlined his ‘privacy focused vision‘ for the company. Paradoxically, rather than give users greater control over their personal data, one output of this vision is to give Facebook greater access to user data across its subsidiary platform, Whatsapp.

What are the proposed Whatsapp privacy changes?

With the proposed changes Whatsapp users now must agree to have their information shared across the Facebook and Instagram platforms.

According to the proposed Terms of Service changes from Whatsapp, the following information can be shared:

  • Account registration information
  • Transaction data
  • Contact lists, phone numbers and active times may also be shared with Facebook.

In a recent point of clarification, Facebook has stated the changes will only affect the way user data is handled while messaging businesses rather than at the personal level. However as history suggests, users would be naive to take this assurance at face value.

These changes to the Terms of Service are forced on users – those who disagree with this cannot opt out and continue to use the service, but rather must close their account.

For healthcare professionals currently reliant on Whatsapp for clinical purposes, the risks continue to escalate.

What alternatives to Whatsapp for healthcare exist?

We don’t condone the use of any consumer app for clinical communication, whether it be Whatsapp, Messenger, Facebook Groups or Telegram. However, their widespread usage is a testament to their ease of use, adoption, and the network effects these platforms create which serve as a workaround to the communication silos clinicians face on a daily basis. The lack of regulation and established guidelines from professional health bodies around communication app usage in some countries, Australia included, further serves to embed their usage within healthcare.

There are a number of suitable enterprise communication platforms which deliver realtime communication in a secure and private environment. At Foxo, we pride ourselves on delivering a user experience as seamless as that of consumer apps, but with additional workflows designed for healthcare teams in a secure, encrypted environment

Digital transformation has arrived but regulation is urgently needed in the communication app market

The pandemic has acted as a catalyst to accelerate digital transformation across health. Widespread telehealth adoption has occurred and in some countries such as Australia, reimbursement pathways look set to remain in certain sectors. Administrative teams have become familiar with Enterprise teleconferencing technologies such as MS Teams and Zoom.

However, the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic also saw some countries relax restrictions around consumer communication app usage in order to allow clinical teams to quickly and effectively communicate remotely. It’s now time for the industry to roll back such stop gap measures and develop robust guidelines around communication app usage.

There has been no better time for healthcare to embrace dedicated clinical communication platforms but in order to do so professional bodies and health services should develop clear guidelines around clinical communication app usage.

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