Should doctors ‘Google’ their patients?

March 12, 2015

With the vast of information available online these days, it is only natural to want to search via ‘Google’ a past or current love, or even a potential employer to find out more about them. Patients also tend to search the Internet for physician recommendations-or negative comments-before choosing the right doctor for their ailment.But do physicians do the same for their patients? More importantly, is that even an acceptable practice?

With the vast of information available online these days, it is only natural to want to search via ‘Google’ a past or current love, or even a potential employer to find out more about them.

Patients also tend to search the Internet for physician recommendations-or negative comments-before choosing the right doctor for their ailment.

But do physicians do the same for their patients? More importantly, is that even an acceptable practice?

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According to Maria Baker, PhD, Daniel George, PhD, and Gordon Kauffman Jr., MD, the authors of a new paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the answer is yes-but only sometimes.

“(The authors) hope their paper sparks conversation among colleagues and the American Medical Association about the possibility of guidelines for providers in the digital age, one in which most medical students can't remember a world without search engines,” wrote Reuters.

The authors listed 10 situations when physicians would be justified in Googling their patients, such as suspicion of abuse or concerns of a patient’s suicide risk.

In a specific example, the authors detailed a real-life experience that they believed Googling a patient was justified: A 26-year-old patient requested a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer, even though she had not undergone-nor was she interested in-genetic testing to see if she was at risk for the disease. Instead, the patient reported an extensive family history of breast cancer and said she had sought the procedure from other hospitals.

According to Reuters, “the genetic counselor Googled her and found that this patient ‘was presenting her cancer story at lay conferences, giving newspaper interviews, and blogging about her experience as a cancer survivor. Additionally, the patient was raising funds, perhaps fraudulently, to attend a national cancer conference.

NEXT: Ophthalmologists chime in

 

“‘Armed with this information . . . the genetic counselor informed the surgeon, who subsequently told the patient he felt uncomfortable performing the surgery in the absence of formal genetic and psychological testing,’” Reuters continued.

Regardless, several Ophthalmology Times advisory board members balked at the idea of Googling their patients.

‘The case history allegedly involved a young woman’s confabulations to convince surgeons to perform bilateral mastectomies, (however) I find it inconceivable that any physician would remotely consider such a request based on what he or she may find regarding the patient on the Internet,” said J. C. Noreika, MD, MBA, an ophthalmologist in Medina, OH. “I see no advantages to the practicing ophthalmologist in Googling current or prospective patients for medical purposes.

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“Any plausible value is strongly offset by the risk for abuse, the potential for breach of privacy, and the amount of misleading information posted on the Internet,” Dr. Noreika continued.

Mark Packer, MD, agreed, saying there are more ethical approaches for physicians to utilize when dealing with potentially lying patients.

“One hopes that physicians have more edifying things to do with their time (anyway) than stalk their patients on the Internet,” said Dr. Packer, who is in private practice, Boulder, CO. “The medical profession endorses ethical guidelines regarding patients’ privacy, and those same guidelines should apply here.

“It’s pretty clear when there is a valid medical indication for an action, and when the action is simply based on personal motives,” he added.

Getting to know patients personally, instead of online, said Uday Devgan, MD, serves physicians best when forming opinions.

“The time to decide whether or not I can help a patient is when they are in front of me in my clinic, not ahead of time with a Google search,” said Dr. Devgan, Devgan Eye Surgery, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, CA.

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No matter the opinion of whether the authors make a valid point or not, Megan Collins, MD, said they do bring attention to the fact that the more needs to be done to keep up with the expanding wealth of online information.

“(The authors have) identified a ‘blind spot’ in professional guidelines regarding the use of online resource to obtain information about patients,” said Dr. Collins, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Wilmer Eye Institute, Baltimore, MD. “As a medical community, we must examine this issue further and develop professional standards of conduct that protect our patients without jeopardizing their trust in providers.”