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FOX Medical Team

Medical apps help patient care, but could pose privacy risk

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The next time you go to the doctor don't be surprised if they pull out a smartphone instead of a stethoscope. New technology is bringing modern medicine into the digital age with hundreds of new apps that now let doctors see your medical records, cat scans, even track your habits on their phones or tablets.

Before a patient arrives, "Code Heart" allows a doctor on the other end to send tests like an echocardiogram to the hospital using the camera on a smart phone, laptop or tablet.

It's sent on a secure encrypted network in a matter of seconds.

The app is the brainchild of Dr. Lowell Satler, Director of Interventional Cardiology and Cardiac Catheterization Lab Operations at Medstar Heart Institute in Washington D.C. He partnered with AT&T bring his idea to reality.

"When the iPhones came out, everyone was snapping pictures and sending it to everyone else and I said 'wow, what if we could just snap a picture of an ECG and transmit it,'" Satler said.

Medical apps can track glucose levels for diabetics, calculate drug dosages or turn a phone into a portable ultrasound.

Other apps let patients look at their lab results, make appointments or refill prescriptions.

For a busy mom like speech pathologist Barbara Correira -- juggling work, an infant and a 2-year-old --- it's helpful having all that medical information in the palm of her hand, using Kaiser Permanente's app called  

"I can bring in my iPod into the toy room, playing while we're doing things and I can do it while I'm doing that. I can access, you know, the appointments or change an appointment time or look up their health records or anything just with a touch of my finger," said Correira.

Need to know the next vaccination or forgot the doctor's orders?

"Every visit they have what they call an after visit summary and I can access all of them on the app," Correira said.

Apps have the potential to revolutionize medicine, but when it comes to your privacy, there are risks.

"We have to address those risks so that we in fact create an environment where these technologies can be used safely and they can be used securely, they can be used without risk to patient privacy and confidentiality and we're not quite there yet," said Deven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington D.C. based consumer advocacy group,.

She says consumers need to know if medical app creators are selling information you put on your app.

Hospitals and health plans are required by law to protect patient privacy, but the same rules don't apply to software companies that develop apps.

"Are they selling it or are you going to be targeted for advertisements based on what kind of data you are storing in the app?" McGraw said.

And there are security issues; someone could get access to embarrassing medical information and post it on Facebook or get someone fired or even tamper with your prescriptions,

To minimize the risk, Kaiser Permanente's app keeps everything on a single secure platform. Nothing sensitive is actually stored on your mobile device. Dr. Farzaneh Sabi believes both doctors and patients benefit.

"I have all of the medical history, labs, imaging studies -- the whole entire medical record in one place. And the value of that is, because I have access to all that information, it decreases the risk of me making mistakes," said Sabi.

The apps add a new tool to your doctor's bag, but what they can't do is replace old-fashioned, hands-on care.

Privacy experts say before you sign up for an app, ask how your information will be stored and protected. It's safer to have that information stored in a virtual system, like a cloud, than it is to store it on the device itself.

Make sure the device and the app are protected by a password.

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