Say cheese: Digital photos useful as patient identifiers

A digital photograph of a patient to be used as a patient identifier can be an effective alternative or addition to names and numbers, according to an article in the February issue of the Journal of Digital Imaging.

While the Joint Commission requires at least two patient identifiers when providing care, such as the individual’s name, a phone number or some other person-specific number, this can be problematic in cases where the patient is unconscious or noncommunicative, wrote authors Senthil Ramamurthy, MS, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and colleagues.

To mitigate these potential barriers, the authors suggested collecting a simple digital photo to be logged in the PACS along with imaging data, and they shared their facility as an example of how this can be implemented.

“We do not intend these digital photographs to entirely replace numerical identifiers, but rather we envision that they would supplement and strengthen these identifiers,” wrote Ramamurthy and colleagues.

The advantage of using photos, the authors explained, is that medical errors can be decreased by limiting mislabeling or misidentification errors. An added benefit is that digital photographs can provide diagnostic value of their own.

To prevent attaching the wrong photograph to a study, digital photography must be integrated at the point-of-care and be taken simultaneously or very close to the same time as the medical image. This can be accomplished using a digital camera embedded in a CT gantry, MRI scanner or other imaging equipment. An alternative option—and one being developed at Emory University Hospital—is to use a snap-on kit to attach a camera to existing hardware. Emory’s kit runs on the Android-operating system and it should be possible to retrofit existing equipment for $200 or less, according to the authors.

“Our technique is useful only if the photographs are readily available on a PACs viewing station,” wrote Ramamurthy and colleagues. “We envision this photograph will be treated just like the scout or localizer films in CT or MRI studies.” They added that ideally the photos should be “clickable” for enlargement and comparable across different studies of the same patient.

Looking ahead, the authors said facial recognition software could be leveraged to automatically capture the patient image and identify wrong patient errors.

"[P]erhaps the biggest challenge is to evaluate the clinical impact of adding patient photographs,” they wrote. They noted that previous surveys have shown two-thirds of radiologists were not in favor of including photographs with medical images. Their addition could distract readers, provide conflicting information or make interpretations more subjective, all issues that deserve further investigation, concluded Ramamurthy and colleagues.