Clinical photography: When going with the flow requires structure and consistency

Healthcare organizations rely on clinical photography – and have for decades. Physicians and staff tagged (or hopefully tagged) hazy Polaroids, thermal-printed images, and self-developed photographs with the correct patient’s name. Doctors and nurses shared those images with colleagues and patients, possibly, for teaching or collaboration, but most likely, they tucked them into a manila envelope, clipped to a paper chart, often never to be seen again.

That’s all changing,

As a catalyst, COVID-19 accelerated the evolution of telehealth and telemedicine services. Patients are more likely to choose telehealth today than ever before, jumping from 11 percent of U.S. consumers using telehealth in 2019 to 46 percent of consumers today, according to research by McKinsey.

Through those visits, patients are sharing digital images with doctors. Because of this alone, the need to understand the challenges clinical photography presents is paramount.

As technology around digital imaging improves and smart device image capture quality deepens, so has interest in better ways to manage clinical images and the processes that drive their capture, use, and storage. Visible light image workflow is largely individual, catered to each specific department, with workflows and processes as varied as the clinicians who engage in them and the patient populations they serve.

As your organization begins to wrap its arms around visible light images with an enterprise mindset instead of a departmentally driven one, what are the benefits? And do they outweigh the risks?

How clinical photography supports documentation and provides better patient care

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but the right picture can also support a thousand words. A photograph – or a series of photographs – stands as a clear representation of health status and progress over time.

Photographs are objective, as well, reducing subjective assessment of disease or wound progression and enhancing care collaboration. Photos can help determine if ongoing treatment is effective, especially if the clinician ordering that treatment is not physically in the presence of the patient at every visit, or if assessments occur at different locations.

They provide an unparalleled opportunity for clinician education, as well. They present a less-biased look at data, and ensure that caregivers are prepared to assess, treat, and create protocols developed for all patients and not just some. And photos can help create efficient, specific teaching moments and collaborative interactions between staff.

Perhaps most importantly, patients feel more connected to their own care when they can see what’s going on and the progress that they’ve made. Images often lead to more pertinent follow-up questions and a better understanding of ongoing care.

Healthcare organizations will face – and conquer – clinical photography challenges

Physicians and patients alike tend to embrace clinical photography and the benefits it provides. But there are challenges every healthcare organization will face when putting policies and procedures in place.

Personal health information exposure exists at nearly every part of the photo documentation process. If a patient can be identified in the image, then knowledge of their health status could easily become public if a photo is inadvertently or inappropriately shared. This includes images of tattoos and body jewelry, which could reveal a patient’s identity.

Those issues could turn what was considered a non-sensitive image into a sensitive one. Image sensitivity is subjective and ever changing, and providers will always need to handle some images carefully. Regardless, patient consent is always necessary, and organizations should clearly define what consent it is requesting for each use case and create an opportunity for patients to consent to those individually.

And even with the best policies and procedures in place, the loss of photographs is always possible. This might be due to technological and workflow failures. It could also happen when an image capture device fails or is lost, taking recent images with it.

Governance is the key

You know the benefits, you’re anticipating the challenges, but you must make sure to protect your patients, your providers, and your organization. Where do you start?

Clinical photography, a subset of visible light imaging, is most often just a piece of a larger, more complex care process. The key to a successful strategy is to create a consistent, supportive management layer that can accommodate the wide range of capture modalities and vendors while still respecting disparate clinical workflows.

The challenge is to find that balance between structure and flexibility. Typical radiology workflows aren’t in play in most enterprise image capture, but we’re increasingly holding this imaging process to greater standards and compliance without the inherent tools that make meeting those standards efficient.

Strong governance is key. The right mix of clinicians, IT and imaging technology staff, HIM, and legal/risk management stakeholders ensures that your organization is creating policies and procedures that clearly define processes around consent, capture, access, sharing, and storage.

Taking technology into account

One rule every healthcare organization should adhere to is that any technology solution should exist to enable clinical solutions. Organizations need to evaluate what processes are actually happening across their enterprises. What capture modalities are in use, and how similar or dissimilar is each clinical and capture workflow?

While many healthcare organizations may not have a complete enterprise imaging suite, most have some of the underlying infrastructure and technology components necessary to begin building one. Often, existing capture and archiving components of that infrastructure can be expanded or updated to enable clinical workflows that will feed a future enterprise imaging strategy.

Having a comprehensive understanding of what is in place, what is clinically necessary, and the technology required to meet those needs adequately from an enterprise perspective is the starting point of building a successful visible light imaging strategy.

Ready to learn more? Register for Hyland’s Virtual Enterprise Imaging Customer Forum, Tuesdays and Thursdays this August.

Julie McDonald

Julie McDonald

Julie McDonald, RN, is a focused healthcare professional with a strong clinical, administrative and leadership background. Julie is passionate about utilizing her 25 years of industry knowledge to assist in... read more about: Julie McDonald

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