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Researchers: Medical Societies Must Guide Docs on Googling Patients

February 2, 2015
by Gabriel Perna
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Googling a patient will become commonplace and medical societies must provide guidelines for doctors on best practices, according to researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine. 
 
The researchers say that currently doctors do not have set guidelines on when to Google a patient, even if it could be relevant and helpful. Maria Baker, Ph.D. an associate professor of medicine, says she had a patient consult her regarding prophylactic mastectomies. The family history for the patient couldn't be verified and a report revealed that a melanoma the patient listed had actually been a non-cancerous, shape-changing mole. When Baker Googled the patient, she found out that they were trying to capitalize on being a cancer patient. 
 
"Googling a patient can undermine the trust between a patient and his or her provider, but in some cases it might be ethically justified," Baker said in a statement. "Healthcare providers need guidance on when they should do it and how they should deal with what they learn."
 
Baker and her colleagues came up with 10 possible Googling situations. This includes duty to re-contact/warn patient of possible harm; evidence of doctor shopping; evasive responses to logical clinical questions; claims in a patient's personal or family history that seem improbably; discrepancies between a patient's verbal history and clinical documentation; and more. She says groups like the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards provide general guidance on appropriate Internet and social media use, they have yet to address patient-targeted Web searches.
 
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