Doctors to AMA: What Are the Guidelines for “Googling” Patients?

A group of doctors is asking professional medical groups to update guidelines on the ethics of using social media and the internet to include when it is OK to search the web for information on patients.

It’s more than likely that most patients search for information about their doctors on the internet nowadays.

But is it be OK for doctors to search for information on their patients? Some doctors are already doing it, and they’re asking professional medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards, for guidance on the ethics of “Googling” patients.

“Googling a patient can undermine the trust between a patient and his or her provider, but in some cases it might be ethically justified,” Maria J. Baker, an associate professor of medicine at Penn State College of Medicine told Science Daily. “Healthcare providers need guidance on when they should do it and how they should deal with what they learn.”

Baker is one of a handful of researchers who coauthored a paper, recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, that they hope will help spark conversation among other doctors and medical groups about the need for guidelines.

“The motivation is to protect patients and prevent harm,” Baker told Reuters. The paper provides several examples of times the authors thought searching for patient information was warranted, such as the case of the 26-year-old patient who requested a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer but whose family history of cancer could not be verified.

After a search on the internet, the a genetic counselor found evidence that the patient had previously given newspaper interviews and spoken at conferences about being a cancer survivor for a cancer she’d never had. The genetic counselor took the information to the patient’s surgeon, who told the patient he felt uncomfortable performing the surgery without any formal genetic and psychological testing.

While AMA has provided general guidelines for doctors on the appropriate use of social media and the internet, the organization has yet to tackle the issue of patient-targeted web searches, Baker said. “Formal professional guidelines could help healthcare providers navigate this current ‘Google blind spot.’”

An AMA spokesperson declined to comment on the issue to Reuters and called the matter “unresolved” by the organization.

Some of the situations justifying patient-targeted web searching that the researchers put forth in their paper include when doctors

  • believe they have a duty to warn a patient of possible harm
  • receive evasive responses from patients to “logical clinical questions”
  • have suspicions about physical and/or substance abuse
  • encounter claims about a patient’s personal or family history that seem unlikely.

(iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!