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Sunday
Jan262014

Yes, I Sometimes Google Patients. Is That Weird?

There's no doubt about it. Typing your name (or your clinics name) into Google or Yahoo and seeing what pops up is something that the majority of your patients are now doing. So, we ask the question, is it fair to do the same?

Humans are curious creatures. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. As social beings we're programmed to be interested in other people. It’s part of what makes us tick. (And let's face it, social media encourages us to become voyeuristic.)

Have any of you Googled a patient you found to be particuarly interesting? A patient you found to be behaving oddly? A famous patient? According to recently published articles, it appears that most M.D.’s answer that questions with a resounding “yes.”

In a New York Times column published online yesterday, Haider Javed Warraich, M.D. discusses whether or not that’s OK.

“Doctors do ‘Google’ their patients,’ he writes. “In fact, the vast majority of physicians I know have done so. “I remember when I first looked up a patient on Google. It was my last day on the bone marrow transplant unit, back when I was an intern. As I stood before the patient, taking her history, she told me she had been a painter and suggested I look up her work on the Internet. I did, and I found her paintings fascinating. Even though our paths crossed fleetingly, she is one of the few patients I vividly remember from that time. “But it surprises me that more physicians don’t pause and think about what it means for the patient-doctor relationship. What if one finds something that is not warm and fuzzy?” I recently read about a case in which a 26-year-old woman went to a surgeon wanting to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, citing an extensive history of cancer in her family. However, she was not willing to undergo any work-up, and her medical team noted several inconsistencies in her story. When they searched online, it turned out she had set up multiple Facebook accounts soliciting donations for malignancies she never had. One page showed her with her head shaved, as if she had already undergone chemotherapy. The surgeons immediately decided to halt her care.

I am tempted to prescribe that physicians should never look online for information about their patients, though I think the practice will become only more common, given doctors’ — and all of our — growing dependence on technology. The more important question health care providers need to ask themselves is why we would like to. Maintaining trust in the doctor–patient relationship is very important. Can a patient trust a doctor who presents information that has not been offered within the confines of the consultation?

Searching for information about patients online is ethical as long as the doctor is seeking information that helps treatment, Dr Warraich believes. “But if the only reason a doctor searches online is to gather personal information that patients don’t want to share with their physicians, then it is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he concludes.

Thoughts? Is this a black and white, right/wrong issue? Please share. (We promise not to Google you.)

Reader Comments (2)

I've not searched online for a patient yet, but I know that my staff has. I overheard my front desk discussing one of our patients who is often a little difficult and demanding. Evidently they'd looked her up online and were discussing what was essentially public information about this. Unsure about what to do in this situation I didn't take any action since as far as I know there wasn't anything that wasn't public and they weren't discussing anything around patient care. I'm curious to know if there are others who have experience with this and what they've done. I can certainly see that the internet could reveal all sorts of things if you felt that you needed more information about a patient for some reason.

There are lots of reasons to use everything you can to find out relevant information about your physician or health care provider.. but most patients are biased around what they read online and believe much that should not be believed. My own feelings are that as long as you're not stalking a patient there might be value in learning things that might be relevant to their care. I can't see that this is different that the typical scuttlebutt that takes place in a clinic around things like a patients personality.. Happy to read the other side though.

01.28 | Unregistered CommenterReDocDO

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