Would You Google a Patient?

With social media permeating our lives, the lines between professional life and personal life often become blurred. Going on a first date? A quick Google search can give you a glimpse into your date’s life and potential conversation topics. Taking a class with a new professor? Google will give you a heads-up as to his or her professional interests or recent publications. Have an appointment for a check-up with a new doctor? Many websites will give you patient reviews and ratings of the practice.


…But what if your doctor is Googling you right back?




Researchers have had the better part of two decades to figure out if doctors could use social media to the benefit of their patients, but there still seems to be a wary skepticism among med school students and practicing physicians of all ages that prevents investigation of potential benefits. After all, knowledge is power, but it often comes with an ethical dilemma.


Research from James Brown et al at the University of Sydney found that 1 in 5 doctors surveyed had received a “friend request” from a patient. A similar survey from Bosslet et al found that 93.5% of medical students surveyed used social media in their everyday lives, but it was practicing physicians who were more likely to have looked up the profile of a patient or patient’s family members or to have received friend requests from patients.


Many groups, such as the American Medical Student Association, have issued guidelines urging doctors not to “friend” patients on social media networks and to “think before posting,” attempting to address professional and privacy concerns. But the question remains: Is it ethical to Google a patient, if the information is on the web, available to all? And if so, what do you do with the information you find?


stethoscope lying on keyboard of a laptop

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Some doctors and psychologists have argued that Googling patients may help them to find information on their patients that may be relevant to treatment but that patients haven’t themselves volunteered directly to the doctor. Professors at Penn State even proposed a list of 10 situations that may merit patient-Googling, such as “Inconsistent statements by the patient, or between a patient and their family members; suspicions regarding physical and/or substance abuse or concerns regarding suicide risk. Others have written that Googling patients helps them to fully humanize their patients, while eventually concluding that it was unethical. But, Dr. Merle Spriggs, who has a PhD in Bioethics, argues that Googling a patient is itself a breach of trust.


Another study shows that the tide may be shifting, with trainee physicians more likely to have looked up a patient while no faculty members “endorsed a history of conducting searches for patients.” Now may be the critical time for influential groups to decide if there is any case to be made for using social media to improve patient care or if it should be avoided at all costs.


While we wait for consensus, use Google to check out these Essential Apps for Med School Students instead!


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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.