Excerpt of the presentation

Ethical and Legal Aspects of Using Digital Images of Patients for Learning and Teaching

Jill Evans & John Mahoney
University of Bristol, Bristol UK

Introduction: The BioMed Image Archive project (http://www.brisbio.ac.uk/) is leading an investigation of current practices in the biomedical communities regarding the acquisition, treatment, publication and use of digital images of patients for learning, teaching and research. The project is particularly focusing on the ethical and legal issues involved. Currently, the Archive contains approximately 8500 images that are free for use in non-profit educational contexts. Images have been donated by medical, dental and veterinary science academics worldwide.

At the time that these images were collected (mid-1990s), it was not always practice to obtain the permission of the patients involved. This was (and in some cases still is) particularly the case where images were likely to be completely unrecognisable, for example, a tissue sample or an x-ray. However, in the last few years, following a number of high-profile incidents involving the abuse of patients' rights and the rights of relatives of patients, the medical profession has become far more aware of and sensitive to the human and moral rights of all concerned in the recording of images for educational purposes. It is now increasingly common practice to obtain the informed consent of a patient before taking any kind of image that is intended for educational use.

Additionally, recent changes in UK human rights legislation, coupled with several notorious examples of the abuse of individuals' moral rights in various arenas, has brought the issue of the publication of images of people on the Web to the forefront of educational debate, and in some cases has created a climate of fear and bewilderment. There is a danger this uncertainty and apprehension may lead to the removal and destruction of visual resources that are (by their very nature) sensitive. In this worst case scenario, medical education could restricted and diminished.

Education has traditionally been seen as somewhat exempt from the concerns of the commercial and industrial worlds because of the widely-perceived altruism and benevolence of its pursuits but these assumptions can no longer be taken for granted.