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Medical Care

Is Your Doctor Googling You?

Because social media is becoming more important in modern medical practice, researchers are calling for updated guidelines on when it is ethical to Google a patient.

“As time goes on, Googling patients is going to become more and more common, especially with doctors who grew up with the Internet,” says Maria J. Baker, associate professor of medicine at  Penn State College of Medicine.

Baker has personal experience in dealing with the issue, according to a news release from the university. After a patient consulted her about preventive mastectomies, Baker found that a family history of cancer couldn’t be verified. After an internet search, the release said, Baker found that the patient had a history of pretending to be a cancer victim.

Googling a patient can undermine the trust between a patient and his or her provider, but in some cases it might be ethically justified,” Baker said. “Healthcare providers need guidance on when they should do it and how they should deal with what they learn.”

In the paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Baker and her co-authors listed 10 situations that might justify Googling patients:

Duty to re-contact/warn patient of possible harm

Evidence of doctor shopping — visiting different doctors until a desired outcome is acquired.

Evasive responses to logical clinical questions

Claims in a patient’s personal or family history that seem improbable

Discrepancies between a patient’s verbal history and clinical documentation

Levels of urgency/aggressiveness are not justified by clinical assessment

Receipt of discrediting information from other reliable health professionals that calls the patient’s story into question

Inconsistent statements by the patient, or between a patient and their family members

Suspicions regarding physical and/or substance abuse

Concerns regarding suicide risk

“Under certain circumstances — when carefully thought out — it may be appropriate to Google a patient,” said Baker. “We’re hoping that by offering scenarios that raise important ethical questions about the use of search engine technology, we can initiate a conversation that results in the eventual development of professional guidelines. “

According to the news release, while professional medical groups such as the American Medical Association provide general guidance on appropriate Internet and social media use, they haven’t yet dealt with Web searches for patients.

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