The Great Google Question

Jan. 9, 2014
Can a basic Google search by doctors on patients save lives, expose fraud or is it a major privacy violation? A recent post in The New York Times’ Well Blog got me thinking about whether or not Google is a valid clinical tool.

Whenever you go for a job, recruiters tell you about the perils of your name coming up on a Google search and what it could mean for your prospects. Ask our career guru, Tim Tolan, and I’m sure he'll tell you all about it. Fair or not, your information can be used against you.

What about when you’re being seen by a doctor? Can Google work against (or for) you? Should doctors Google their patients? That was the subject of a widely discussed post in The New York Times’ Well Blog this week. Haider Javed Warraich, M.D., a resident in internal medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, shared his thoughts on the perils and potential reasons for Googling a patient.

Dr. Warraich lays out scenarios in which a doctor Googling a patient can either help or hurt them. He relays an example from the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution, where a 26-year-old tried to bilk surgeons into giving her a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. A Google search revealed she had set up Facebook pages to solicit donations to attend a summit for young cancer patients, and the surgeon decided against the operation. It appeared the patient didn’t appear to be all that truthful when explaining her symptoms and the Google search confirmed the doctors’ suspicions.

For the patient, Warraich talks about how there are safety scenarios that can be of use through a Google search. For instance, he writes that if a doctor suspects a pediatric patient is being abused, a Google search for evidence online would be helpful.

Yet, there are downsides – mostly involved with patient privacy. Warraich writes about a scenario where he Googled a patient’s history and felt he had violated their privacy. At the end of the article, he essentially surmises that it’s better for the doctor to just simply gain the patient’s trust and ask any questions they might have to get information.

Violating a patient’s privacy seems to be the biggest deterrent. I recently asked a doctor friend of mine if he ever Googled his patients. He told me he didn’t because he felt it was a violation of privacy and would unfairly bias his decision making. The only exception he gave is if a patient mentions their celebrity status, and in that case, he asks for their permission after he has developed a good relationship with them and has developed a treatment plan.

Mostly though, the answer was no. Googling a patient wasn’t the right move. I see the potential upside to doctors Googling a patient, as outlined by Dr. Warraich. However, ultimately, I think it’s a bad idea. Just like providers should avoid being Facebook friends with their patients, Googling them brings up the same concerns and potential hazards.

So let me ask you, especially the doctors who are reading this, do you think it’s okay to Google a patient? Or does it violate that person’s privacy? Feel free to write something in the comments below or tweet me at @HCI_GPerna.

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