Physicians should stop Googling patients: Viewpoint

Recent surveys found many physicians are Googling patients, which may lead to ethical issues, Pavan Amara, a student nurse, journalist and women's rights activist based in London, wrote in an op-ed piece published Oct. 18 in The BMJ.

The behavior, referred to as "patient targeted Googling" in a 2010 study, is common around the world. A 2018 survey found that nearly half of genetic counselors in the U.S. have searched or considered searching a patient's name online. 

More than half of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and psychotherapists in New Zealand admitted to looking up patients, as did 13% of Canadian emergency physicians and medical students, and 40% of German psychotherapists, according to the op-ed. 

Although the behavior is common, it can raise a moral dilemma. One physician said she discovered her patient was an adult film performer after a Google search but did not know how or if she should bring it up with the patient.

She discussed the case with a senior colleague because she was "scared of getting in trouble."

Googling patients can affect a patient's trust and health, according to the American Medical Association. Physicians have a fundamental ethical responsibility to respect patient privacy and should uphold standards of professionalism with respect to social media, Patrick McCormick, MD,chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, said in a 2015 article.

The AMA article also said online personas can be misleading because social media allows patients to morph into anyone they like, and not all information online is relevant or trustworthy.

"More importantly, searching the internet for information about a patient suggests that the trust that is essential to the patient-physician relation is already somewhat wobbly," according to an article in the journal PM&R. "If a physician believes that a patient is not forthcoming about clinically important matters, then 'Googling' the individual is not likely to improve that situation."

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