The Art of Medical Photography

Advances in digital cameras, and falling prices, have led to healthcare professionals increasingly taking their own photographs during clinical research.

But in clinical trials, where high-quality pictures are essential because even tiny changes to a wound or melanoma could change the outcome of a study, it’s a big risk to rely on the basic settings of a “point-and-click” camera.

And it’s not just about the technology – it’s also about the skills.

There are only a handful of courses in the UK providing reputable qualifications for medical photographers – meaning it’s a tough profession to get into and that employers can find it difficult to identify individuals with the appropriate skills and experience.

So, is there a big difference between a DIY photograph and one by a qualified medical photographer? Well, if you want decent photos of your wedding day you will probably get better results by hiring a professional photographer rather than leaving it to one of the guests. When you’re photographing something that could prove, or disprove, a compound’s value in a study, that potentially costs millions of pounds and could ultimately save many lives, it’s much the same.

Medical photographers can identify and use the appropriate specialist equipment to suit a particular study’s needs. That includes using the right lighting to avoid bleaching out detail caused by using the wrong flash settings and ensure that even the smallest detail can be seen, which can be particularly important when photographing the skin.

Professionally-taken photos will reveal incredibly subtle changes that would be difficult for an amateur to capture using an everyday “point-and-click” camera. There is a genuine art in documenting these changes. Good pictures can provide a panel of researchers with a hugely enhanced evidence base on which to make judgements, removing the reliance on individual investigators observing patients – thus removing the potential for bias.

There are other issues to consider, that go beyond the picture quality. For example, the clinical research industry cannot afford to be casual about consent, confidentiality and the patient’s overall sense of trust and confidence.

A recent study* showed that many people are uncomfortable with healthcare professionals using personal cameras. Just 28% of patients said their use was acceptable, while 75% reported that they felt more comfortable being pictured by someone using professional equipment.

There is also the advantage that medical photographers work quickly and efficiently and reduce the need for recalling patients because the pictures were of a poor quality. At the same time CROs will get a full set of data and can complete the trial in the shortest possible time. As is so often the case, if a job’s worth doing it’s worth getting a professional.

*Lau,K and Schumacher,H and Irwin, M. (2010). Patients’ perception of medical photograph. An international journal of surgical reconstruction. 63 (6), p505-511 http://www.jprasurg.com/article/S1748-6815(09)00780-3/abstract.