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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.

Baker Googled her patient and found evidence she'd been capitalizing on being a cancer victim for a cancer she didn't have. The question, Baker said, is in what circumstances is it appropriate for a doctor to research a patient using online search engines?

Imagine, however, that you see a physician for a lifestyle change, perhaps eating less, exercising more or to quit smoking. Later, you find out that your doctor visited your Facebook page and found photos of you smoking and confronts you with them on your next visit. Some patients, Baker said, could get "bent out of shape" over the online snooping.

"This is not something we're recommending be done all the time, but only in rare situations," Baker said.

The research, performed by Baker and two colleagues, contends that professional medical societies such as the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the American Medical Association (AMA) are responsible for developing search engine guidelines.

While medical societies have developed "general" guidelines on appropriate Internet and social media use, they have yet to address patient-targeted Web searches.

The FSMB did not reply to a request for comment from Computerworld. The American Medical Association declined comment, saying the issue has "not been resolved by the AMA."

Other health professionals have urged caution with patient-targeted Googling. The American College of Physicians (ACP) and the FSMB have encouraged physicians to consider the intent of an Internet search and how it might affect ongoing patient treatment. The organizations also encouraged healthcare workers to document online search findings with implications for ongoing care.

Daniel George, an assistant professor of medical humanities, and Gordon L. Kauffman, a professor and vice chair of surgery, both at Penn State College of Medicine, co-authored the research paper.

In all, the Penn State research paper recommends Googling patients in 10 situations, including the obligation find a former patient to warn them about possible future issues as new information arises.

The paper also says it's appropriate for doctors to Google a patient to find evidence of doctor shopping, or visiting different doctors until a desired outcome is acquired. If a patient is evasive to logical clinical questions being asked by their physician, that too is Google appropriate.


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