Researchers Push for Guidelines Around Doctors’ Googling Patients

February 18, 2015 in News

In most cases, it should not be acceptable for physicians to search for information about their patients online, according to a paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Reuters reports.

Paper Details

In the paper, researchers from Penn State University medical campuses detailed various situations in which they believe it is permissible to Google patients, referring to the practice of using the Internet search engine to find out information about someone or something. They said they hope to spur debate among stakeholders, such as the American Medical Association, to eventually set standards for the practice.

Recommendations

The authors wrote that it is okay to Google a patient in some cases, but in general, they believe physicians should refrain from the practice.

The paper outlined 10 situations in which physicians should be allowed to research a patient’s background online, including when:

  • Doctors have a responsibility to warn of possible harm;
  • A patient’s story seems improbable; or
  • There are concerns of suicide risk or abuse.

Maria Baker, paper co-author and a Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute genetics counselor, said, “The motivation is to protect patients and prevent harm.”

However, they noted that such practices could undermine patient-provider trust.

Daniel George, paper co-author and an assistant professor of medical humanities at Penn State University College of Medicine, said, “There is something worth protecting in the physician-patient relationship.”

Reaction

Mildred Solomon — president of The Hastings Center, a New York-based bioethics institute — applauded the authors for raising questions about the searching practice. However, she noted that their proposed “acceptable” conditions for researching a patient were too broad.

She said, “There’s too much wiggle room,” adding that it is “intention” that should matter. “Why is the physician motivated to do this?” she asked.

A spokesperson from AMA, which has issued guidelines for physicians’ use of social media, declined to comment, noting that the Internet searching issue is “unresolved” by AMA (Belisomo, Reuters, 2/13).

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