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Sometimes it's ethical for the doctor to Google you

Lucas Mearian | Feb. 12, 2015
Patient-focused online searches can uncover health risks, but may erode confidence in a doctor.

A Google Glass wearer
Wearables, such as Google Glass, will make patient-oriented Internet searches even easier for healthcare workers

The medical community needs ethical guidelines for doctors who Google their patients for information because such a move can erode confidence and trust.

That's the recommendation of a recently published research paper by professors at the Penn State College of Medicine. The study highlights how physicians have been left to navigate search engine waters on their own -- and it points out the moral ambiguities involved in the practice.

"In some ways, it could be viewed by patients as somewhat weird that a medical provider might be trolling their online profile to get more information about them," said Maria Baker, a Penn State associate professor of medicine and co-author of the research paper. "Googling a patient can undermine the trust between a patient and his or her provider, but in some cases it might be ethically justified."

The research comes at a time when young physicians and doctors in training are more often using Internet search engines in connection with their work. In addition to that, wearable devices such as Google Glass are being used more often in the healthcare industry.

For example, Stanford University's medical school plans to start using Google's head-mounted display to help train surgical students. Meanwhile, emergency room doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston are using Google Glass to help treat patients.

The Penn State research paper recommends guidelines for using search engines on patients, all of which revolve around patient safety to include concerns regarding suicide risk and whether there's a suspicion of substance abuse.

Baker has dealt with the question first hand in her role as a genetic counselor and medical geneticist.

A female patient of Baker's was pursuing cancer predisposition testing based on her diagnosis of breast cancer at age 27. The initial testing revealed a mutation in a gene, but the clinical relevance of it had yet to be determined. Years later, the genetic lab issued an amended report revealing the gene was responsible for a rare form of anemia, which also had cancer risks. The risks applied not only to the primary patient but for her relatives on both sides of the family.

Unable to find the patient, Baker went online to get her contact information.

It was a second patient case, however, that inspired Baker to write the research paper, "Navigating the Google Blind Spot." That patient consulted Baker about prophylactic mastectomies. The patient's family history of cancer could not be verified and then a pathology report revealed that a melanoma the patient listed had actually been a non-cancerous, shape-changing mole.


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