Should Medical Staff ‘Google’ Patients?

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by Brandon Hamm, Bioethics Program Alum (MSBioethics 2012)

On several occasions, a new admission or psychiatric consultation has been accompanied by patient information that was “googled” by nursing or consulting practitioners. On some occasions, the ‘googled’ information has admittedly been helpful for refining diagnosis and management. On other occasions, it has seemed unnecessary for patient care. HIPPA does not protect information publicly available on the internet, but is it ethical for medical staff to “google” their patients?

The first time that I personally ran into this issue was during a psychiatric consultation requested for suspected factitious disorder (patient attempting to deceive by producing/providing false symptoms). The patient presented as a new patient (to our geography and institution) with shortness of breath and chest pain. After an extensive workup, the medical team was puzzled that the patient’s symptoms did not match his objectively normal physiology. The clinical next-steps under consideration were invasive. The medical team was not yet able to obtain previous records from outside hospitals and the patient declined consent for collateral information. So the team “googled” the patient. We found a forum accusing the patient of inducing arrhythmias for medical attention and regularly committing social/financial frauds. Later, records were later obtained from an outside hospital that revealed a history of hospital-hopping and recurrent malingering /factitious behavior resulting in medically unnecessary procedures.

In this case, the “googled” information decelerated the invasive (significant risks) trajectory of the patient’s care. This also facilitated better management of the building conflict between the patient and the frustrated medical team. In this case, “googling” produced beneficent, or at least non-maleficent results. And these would be the typical justifications for “googling” a patient, but it is much harder to claim that it respected patient autonomy. Perhaps more importantly, I worry about what impact “googling” has on trust in the patient-physician relationship.

Despite public attention from Haider Warraich’s New York Times article “When Doctors ‘Google’ Their Patients”, the ethics of “googling” patients has received scant attention in bioethics literature. What consensus there is deems as unethical “googling” for non-clinical purposes. When “googling” is used as a clinical tool, there remains some disagreement. Volpe et al (2013) argue that “googling” patients is bad practice because it encourages providers to withdraw from patient relationships, can damage trust, and invades patient privacy. George et al (2013) point out searching is legal and not considered a breach of privacy for employers screening applicants. Consequently, this group proposes that, at times, it is irresponsible not to “google” patients when traditional information sources (patient, patient medical record, previous providers) are exhausted or unavailable. Various commenters (Krischner et al, 2011) point out, however, that information obtained on the internet is of variable accuracy, and using it will consistently break trust and rapport when disclosed to the patient.

“Googling” for patient information is somewhat different in psychiatry than it may be in other areas of medical practice. A patient’s social circumstances, criminal history, attunement with reality, and even provision of truthful information are clinically pertinent for psychiatrists to perform accurate diagnosis and management. Since this information (with variable accuracy) may be readily available on the internet, temptation to “google” patients may be strongest for psychiatrists. A patient’s posted suicidal thoughts or homicidal threats are clearly of clinical significance. And these may not be available in the normal course of care. For example, patients with acute paranoid psychosis are often very protective of even the most basic personal information. Moreover, concerns about compromising patient trust may be blunted in psychiatry—psychiatrists are accustomed to damaging rapport when admitting patients involuntarily who are a significant danger to self or others.

Along with others, I believe that practitioners should never “google” for clinically irrelevant patient information. While it may be acceptable to “google” new colleagues and new friends, the relationship with a patient should be understood differently. “

Googling” for clinically relevant information should only be undertaken after a clear articulation of the reasons for “googling” and the necessity of the information that is being sought. Clinical information should ideally be obtained from the patient, medical records, previous providers, and patient- permitted others. In cases when these resources are exhausted /unobtainable, and significant patient benefit/harm is at stake, practitioners should only look to information obtained from the internet as a last resort. Some guidelines for psychiatrists were proposed by Clinton et al (2010). Specifically, these guidelines encourage the psychiatrist to consider his or her clinical intention, the potential for trust impairment, possibly obtaining consent for the search, and the impact of revealing obtained information to the patient or in documentation.

What we don’t have here is a clear algorithm for determining when it’s okay to “google” a patient and when it’s not. And so I wonder what you’re experiences have been and when you think it’s appropriate.

[The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]


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