Should doctors Google their patients?

It’s well known that patients Google their doctors, a practice that’s performed with increasing frequency.

But what about doctors researching their patients on the web?

It’s an interesting idea that I hadn’t thought of. I have never Googled a patient, and can’t see any reason to in a primary care setting. But the context of the piece, which I first saw in the WSJ Health Blog, was in psychiatry. It would be helpful for a psychiatrist, for instance, to know if a patient was blogging about suicidal thinking.

Or in the emergency room, when a patient arrives unconscious with minimal identifying information.

But in routine cases, there are few reasons to do so. Authors of a cited essay agree, suggesting that “doctors ask themselves honestly about their intent in conducting the search and whether the outcome might compromise the trust and relationship between the doctor and patient.”

They even go as far as suggest asking patients for their consent before Googling them. That’s questionable, since we’re talking about information that’s publicly available.

There are few ethical guidelines on this, with opinions on both ends of the spectrum: “Some people say absolutely it should never be done; it’s a breach of privacy … But then many say it should be done as a matter of routine. It’s information that is in the public domain, and it may be information that is clinically relevant.”

The overriding question should be, “Will researching my patient online improve their care?” If the answer is “yes,” only then, perhaps, will there be a legitimate reason to do so.

Should doctors Google their patients?Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and co-author of Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices. He is on the editorial board of contributors, USA Today, and is founder and editor, KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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