Body Cameras in EMS

EMS professionals are known for having opinions, but one topic that is sure to bring out their thoughts is the idea of bringing cameras into their world. Whether expressed as a fear of HIPAA violations or a worry of punitive measures against their own actions, the idea of being recorded can cause many to bristle. But our world is changing, and we are being recorded more often than we might appreciate. Sometimes it is the media reporting news, other times it may be the public trying make the news. Still other recordings happen with our own equipment. From the telemetric monitoring of our driving to the recording of audio being synchronized with the acquisition of vital statistics by the monitor at the cardiac arrests we work, we are already being watched. So, what is fundamentally different about video capture?

The concern over HIPAA does not pertain to the collection of data itself, but ultimately how it is used; or even more importantly, how it might inadvertently be made available to those not responsible for the direct care of a patient. On the other count, how managers choose to use any potential recordings will determine whether it becomes a tool for professional development or a weapon directed against paramedics. And we constantly see footage of events being captured by dash cams and body cams including the actions earlier this year when an EMT attacked a restrained patient in the back of her rig. This broadcast event became a reminder for all leaders to discuss not only how we respond to provocations but to consider the value of body-worn cameras to capture the EMS point-of-view during patient encounters. An article by EMS1 editor Greg Friese asked some interesting questions that are still largely unanswered by the community.

The service where I work in North Carolina recently began using a popular fleet management application utilizing GPS to track basic telematics during vehicle operations. Not long after the pilot project began gathering data, an unfortunate incident happened that automatically required law enforcement to investigate. During the probe, the medic operating the ambulance was cleared of any potential violations specifically because of the details that were recorded around the time of the incident. Similarly, a progressive EMS operation in the state of Texas began piloting a program with Axon (a bodycam provider formerly known as Taser.) In this case, the recording was made with a bodycam in the patient compartment of the ambulance during a transport. The male paramedic was later accused by a female patient of inappropriate touching. The video was produced from the Axon system resulting in the charges being dropped and a career likely being saved. While these are only two anecdotes, they show the very positive side of EMS actions being recorded. Another interesting study in progress is by a major EMS provider in Minnesota that has seen a lot of negative press for being pressured by law enforcement to administer sedatives to suspects. The intent here is to document the decisions of their paramedics through the use of body worn cameras. It is significant to note from experience at Axon that more LEO have been saved by being able to reproduce and evaluate actions than have been punished through administration review of bodycam video.

Another way to use video recordings captured during calls for service is as a record of assessments or treatments. Through voice recognition, or artificial intelligence, actions of the crew can be automatically transcribed for the PCR documentation. This could be a significant value as studies have shown up to a 40% increase in the accuracy of reports when the option to review recordings of what had happened are utilized. Depending on how quickly supervisors access the recordings, they can also be used for near real-time review and critique of procedures in the field to eliminate unnecessary skills training or professional assessments. There are many other potential uses that are far less invasive into our daily work. Many agencies routinely videotape training simulations for review with the objective to improve patient care. Some are even looking to turn that idea around by placing the camera on the patient and recording how the clinician interacts with the patient from the perspective of the patient.

A rural Tennessee EMS agency partnered with another body camera manufacturer, Wolfcom, back in 2016 to request donations through their bodycameradonations.com website saying that “it would help our crew members to validate situations we encounter and record and preserve critical video evidence.” The fact is that many times EMS is the first on the scene and often sees important evidence that may be trampled or moved while helping patients and victims. Body cameras can capture that critical video evidence from the moment we arrive on the scene. The county went on to argue that with body cameras, there is video proof of a patient refusing treatment adding that “in cases where patients refuse service and later on develop medical problems or die from their injuries, with body cameras we would have video evidence of them refusing the treatment.”

Consent is a potential legal issue with recording a patient/care-giver interaction, but again my home state of North Carolina is somewhat unique in that only one party in a conversation needs to acknowledge consent for the interaction to be recorded. Consent in other states could be handled differently. For instance, recordings could be limited to the interior of the patient compartment where notification could be posted of the recording in progress.

Preventing the violation of patient privacy is the objective of HIPAA. The federal act itself does not attempt to preclude the collection of patient data although the penalties of any breach of that trust can be severe enough for agencies to self-limit the recording of any non-essential patient data. Walking into a hospital with a camera recording everything observable to the staff could also provide significant challenges in how that video is accessed and may be a legitimate concern to the hospital administration charged with protecting the privacy of its patients in the ED.

It is important to recognize that the recordings made through the Axon system are backed up to the cloud where they can be automatically linked with other cameras that recorded at the same time nearby the scene to add additional perspectives. The web interface that is used in this application is called evidence.com and has been designed specifically to maintain the chain of custody for critical evidence by documenting the details of any access to recorded information. This security is very different than the application of a personal GoPro camera that is used frequently by firefighters, but where the Chief has no recognizable control over the viewing of the video that is captured or how it might be distributed.

How video recordings are ultimately used in EMS will be determined by our reaction to it. That is not to say we will control it, but we will influence how it is applied. If it becomes a tool for us to learn and improve our practice in relation to patients, it will be because we have embraced it. If it becomes something that is used against us as professionals, it will be a result of our attempts to circumscribe the terms under which it is utilized.

1 Comment

  • Interesting unscientific survey on Twitter (@hp_ems) right now showing a preference of 2:1 for wearing body cameras “to protect me” versus “Never, we are not LEO” with another quarter of responders choosing “It’s a ‘HIPPA’ violation” (yes, misspelled as well as misunderstood.)

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