Google: it’s so engrained in daily life, the search engine has sparked its own verb. But when is “Googling” patient information appropriate for physicians?

A recent case in the Journal of General Internal Medicine examines this question, with Penn State College of Medicine researchers contending that professional medical societies must update or amend their Internet guidelines to address the ethics behind it.

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

Another article in the journal PM&R explored the issue, noting that while there may be a lack of clear policy on Googling patients, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ethical questions to consider before searching a patient’s name online.

“We need to consider what physicians or other health care professionals need to know about a patient to provide good care and whether the Internet is the best, or even a good way to obtain it,” according to the article.  

Although AMA has no ethics policy that specifically addresses Googling patients, Patrick McCormick, chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, said that physicians have a fundamental ethical responsibility to respect patient privacy. Ethics policy also requires physicians to uphold standards of professionalism with respect to social media.

The Internet may offer helpful nonclinical information—like a patient’s behavior, lifestyle, and hobbies—but it has significant limitations. The PM&R article outlines two major factors to consider:

  • Relevancy. Not all patient information is created equal, and some of it may not enhance patient care, so physicians should consider why they’re Googling a patient and the specific information they intend to find. Searchable public records can certainly provide insights about patients, from the numbers of businesses they own to their involvement in criminal activities, but this information rarely impacts physician recommendations or management plans, according to the article.   
  • Anonymity. People can morph into whomever they wish to be online, especially on social media. All it takes is an alias and image. Even if a physician finds a useful public record or Facebook profile matching the name of a patient, how can he or she really confirm that it belongs to the same person being treated? The physician could send the patient a friend request to further investigate or cross-reference the information with another resource, but wouldn’t that overstep the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship? And how many physicians have ample time to even vet patient information?

“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,” the article noted. “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.”

Still, despite the complications of Googling patients, it’s a trend that is likely here to stay. Googling patients continues to surface in the media and certain instances, such as one in which a 26-year-old woman lied about her health conditions to solicit donations online for malignancies she never had, prove that the search engine can be a powerful tool for physicians.

But the question of how to use it, when, and why remains amorphous.

“Given such considerations, articulating clear policy in this area could have several advantages,” the article said. “Beyond setting clear expectations for behavior within an institution, addressing these issues in organizational policy can help educate physicians and other healthcare professionals … to the important values at stake and to how their conduct with respect to the Internet is part and parcel of professionalism.”

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