Doctors lack guidance on ethics of seeking information online about patients


    Patients turn to the Internet all the time as they shop for a doctor or try to learn more about a physician’s reputation. But, is it OK for your doctor to Google you?

    Medical geneticist Maria Baker and health research colleagues at Penn State Hershey Medical Center say there are rare circumstances when it is appropriate for a health provider to do a targeted search on a patient.

    But Baker said there’s a risk. Using the Web to routinely track down patient information — without a very good reason — could damage the trust between a doctor and patient.

    At Hershey Medical, when one woman wanted breast-removal surgery — without genetic testing or a clear family history of cancer — Baker said the hospital team decided to look the patient up.

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    “She possibly had a psychological disorder that was compelling her to request those services,” Baker said. “The story really didn’t add up.”

    The next step was harder, Baker said.

    “The problem with Googling people is you can find out some information,” Baker said. “Then you don’t know what to do with that information.”

    The Hershey researchers say it’s time for a wider conversation about what’s ethical and appropriate — and for medical societies to update their policies.

    Many hospitals and doctor’s groups advise physicians about remaining professional on social media sites. There’s advice on protecting patient privacy on the Internet, but Baker said there’s little guidance on using the Web as a tool to gather patient information.

    By email, Larry Downs, CEO at the Medical Society of New Jersey, addressed the issue of Googling patients: “Though we have not seen this practice in New Jersey affect patient care, we support the AMA guidance on this issue, which states that physicians must recognize that actions online may negatively affect their reputations among patients and colleagues, may have consequences for their medical careers and can undermine public trust in the medical profession.”

    Baker outlined how her team has used the Internet in a recent article published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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