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March 25, 2010

BehindTheMedspeak: Should doctors Google their patients?


Above, the headline of a post in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal "Digits" blog focusing on an essay in the latest edition of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, which outed one of medicine's dirty little secrets, namely that doctors Google their patients just like their patients Google them.

According to Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, the author of the WSJ piece, "The practice [of doctors Googling patients] appears to be widespread."

For what it's worth, I've never Googled a patient.

But I digress.

The authors of the journal essay wrote that in some cases the doctors' Googling was motivated by "curiosity, voyeurism and habit."

Just wait till the current generation of teenagers finish med school.

One of the paper's authors, Dr. David Brendel, said in an interview, "Most patients would probably be shocked that their doctor had the time or the interest to conduct a search like this. A good number of people would feel like their privacy had been breached...."

Brendel went on to say that he and his co-authors had themselves Googled patients and had witnessed other physicians conducting searches.

The authors of the paper said that doctors should consider asking the patient for consent.

Don't hold your breath.


Here's the abstract of the journal article.


Patient-Targeted Googling: The Ethics of Searching Online for Patient Information

With the growth of the Internet, psychiatrists can now search online for a wide range of information about patients. Psychiatrists face challenges of maintaining professional boundaries with patients in many circumstances, but little consideration has been given to the practice of searching online for information about patients, an act we refer to as patient-targeted Googling (PTG). Psychiatrists are not the only health care providers who can investigate their patients online, but they may be especially likely to engage in PTG because of the unique relationships involved in their clinical practice. Before searching online for a patient, psychiatrists should consider such factors as the intention of searching, the anticipated effect of gaining information online, and its potential value or risk for the treatment. The psychiatrist is obligated to act in a way that respects the patient's best interests and that adheres to professional ethics. In this article, we propose a pragmatic model for considering PTG that focuses on practical results of searches and that aims to minimize the risk of exploiting patients. We describe three cases of PTG, highlighting important ethical dilemmas in multiple practice settings. Each case is discussed from the standpoint of the pragmatic model.


Note added Thursday, March 25, 2010 (the day after the post): One of the paper's authors graciously sent me a PDF file with the entire article, including references. Anyone who wants a copy, email me directly and I'll send it to you.

March 25, 2010 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Nice to see "But I digress" back in action

Posted by: Matt Penning | Mar 25, 2010 10:44:54 PM

"A good number of people would feel like their privacy had been breached...."

How dare they look at publicly available information.. information that the person themselves more likely than not echoed internationally.

(PS: Rocketboy is not my real name.)

Posted by: Rocketboy | Mar 25, 2010 11:54:26 AM

I think this is just another indication that if you don't want other people seeing it, don't put it out in public. Your doctor has just as much right as anyone else to Google your name and find out any public information about you.

Better get used to it, because prospective employers, prospective romantic partners, prospective parents-in-law, and probably even your boss will increasingly be using the Internet to find out more about you. By making information publicly available, you are voluntarily waiving your right to the privacy of that information.

Don't like it? I've got a yurt I can sell you in outer Mongolia.

Posted by: Nathan | Mar 25, 2010 11:39:06 AM

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