5 Ethically Valid Situations for Patient-targeted Googling

Patient-Targeted Googling

Ever since Googling became a verb, people self-diagnosed and googled ailments.  The notion of a doctor googling their patient seems more of a breach of trust than self-diagnosis.  But what if someone might be inflicting harm on himself or could be a threat to others?  Should doctors be allowed to ‘Google’ their patients?

The current AMA guidelines are under debate.

Although the American Medical Association’s (AMA) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) have issued general guidance on use of the Internet and social media, they have not formally addressed the issue of patient-targeted Googling.

Should doctors tell patients they were googled?

Depends on the ratio of benefit to consequence.  All actions have consequences, both positive and negative.  Although PTG can be extremely helpful, it should be used with lots of care and caution.  Be aware of the consequences:

  • Trust
  • Bias
  • False Information

Did you know there is a Google Blind Spot?

Google is built to sell advertising, not be a collective of all a person’s activities.

The Google algorithm is complex and changing.  The latest update to the algorithm was about an individual’s search history and who they are connected to.  Each person will be served different results based on your geo-location, your search history and who you are connected to.  That said, in reality every search serves the viewer different results.

Acceptable or not?

What is the physician’s motivation? Is it going to bring benefit to the patient, or is it something self-serving or out of personal curiosity?

A doctor’s intention is the key in determining whether Googling is wrong.  If the core of their concern is with patient safety, that is more “acceptable reason.

The use of ‘patient-targeted Googling’ in medical crises, such as attempts to identify unconscious patients in emergency departments, seems very acceptable.

Five situations in which it may be ‘ethically valid and even warranted’ for doctors to engage in ‘patient-targeted Googling’:

  1. The doctor has a duty to warn of ‘possible harm’
  2. The patient has provided ‘evasive responses to logical clinical questions’
  3. The patient has made ‘improbable’ claims about their personal or family history
  4. The doctor has suspicions ‘regarding physical and/or substance abuse’
  5. The doctor has concerns over a suicide risk

As young adults who grew up on the internet become physicians, Googling patients is going to become more and more common. The Federation of State Medical Boards notes that physician use of digital tools will evolve along with technology and societal trends.

Have you ever taken the time to Google a patient?