De-identification of medical images with retention of scientific research value

Stephen M. Moore, David R. Maffitt, Kirk E. Smith, Justin S. Kirby, Kenneth W. Clark, John B. Freymann, Bruce A. Vendt, Lawrence R. Tarbox, Fred W. Prior

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Online public repositories for sharing research data allow investigators to validate existing research or perform secondary research without the expense of collecting new data. Patient data made publicly available through such repositories may constitute a breach of personally identifiable information if not properly de-identified. Imaging data are especially at risk because some intricacies of the Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM) format are not widely understood by researchers. If imaging data still containing protected health information (PHI) were released through a public repository, a number of different parties could be held liable, including the original researcher who collected and submitted the data, the original researcher’s institution, and the organization managing the repository. To minimize these risks through proper de-identification of image data, one must understand what PHI exists and where that PHI resides, and one must have the tools to remove PHI without compromising the scientific integrity of the data. DICOM public elements are defined by the DICOM Standard. Modality vendors use private elements to encode acquisition parameters that are not yet defined by the DICOM Standard, or the vendor may not have updated an existing software product after DICOM defined new public elements. Because private elements are not standardized, a common de-identification practice is to delete all private elements, removing scientifically useful data as well as PHI. Researchers and publishers of imaging data can use the tools and process described in this article to de-identify DICOM images according to current best practices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)727-735
Number of pages9
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2015


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