The Great Google Question

January 9, 2014
2 Comments
The Great Google Question

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.

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Maybe

There may be a circumstance when a patient needs to receive their imaging results directly and their contact information in the electronic medical record may not be up to date. I don't think it would be out of bounds for a physician to Google or Facebook message a patient when it may be in the best interest of the patient to receive important information about their health. Similarly, I would not mind if a patient Googled me to find out more information or to find my contact information regarding the care I provided.

Thanks for your comment

Thanks for your comment radhelper. I agree there are definitely circumstances where Googling a patient, specifically for their benefit, would be appropriate. If that's the case, I would say the best bet is to let them know that your are going to Google them, so they aren't taken by surprise.