Googling Your Patients: Right or Wrong?

I’m not a serial patient Googler. Although, after doing a little research for this post, I may just become one. It seems like everyone’s conducting online searches on the side these days. While I don’t make looking into my patient’s backgrounds a habit, I have Googled my patients a time or two. A few months ago, for example, I cared for a guitarist who presented to the emergency department with a finger laceration. He took a few before and after photos of his wound and Tweeted them including my personal Twitter handle. I figured that was permission enough to log onto iTunes and listen to a few of his hits. 

Then, there are the patients with interesting careers or those who are trying to drum up business that invite you to look them up in case you should need their services. While I have yet to contact a former patient to paint my house or fix my plumbing, I appreciate the congenial conversation. I also consider it an invitation to Google their name should a need arise. 

When I do Google patients, even if the search is invited on some level, I feel a little guilty. The look on my face screams covert op (my poker face is terrible). My hand is positioned carefully on the computer’s mouse ready to flick the open window off the screen should someone peer around the corner (everyone I work with probably assumes I’m looking at porn). To me, Googling my patients seems like some sort of HIPAA violation even though, until now, I’d never really checked to see if this is the case. 

Googling your patients does not violate HIPAA. You are acting as an observer of information rather than posting a patient’s information online yourself. Regardless of the fact that doing some online research into your patients’ pasts isn’t technically illegal, it still should not be taken lightly. There are certainly valid points to consider on both sides of the argument. 

The Pro-Googling Argument

In some cases, Googling your patients can alert you to a problem, particularly one psychological in nature. If a patient appears to be psychotic and makes claims to be famous, for example, a quick Google search will validate or disprove their claims. One well-known patient Googling story involves a 25 year-old woman who claimed her family tree was riddled with cancer asking doctors to perform a double mastectomy. Her story sounded fishy so her surgeon decided to check her out online. The situation turned out to be a scam. Some psychiatric clinics, for example, check patient’s Facebook posts for indications of suicidal ideation in the interest of safety. 

The Anti-Googling Argument

Patient-googling opposers argue that investigating your patient’s personal lives online is a violation of privacy. Others warn that looking into patient’s background without their knowledge may negatively taint your opinion affecting the care you provide and the commitment to “do no harm”. Perhaps a Google search reveals your patient is a criminal, for example. An awareness of this information may result in substandard care, or at least a substandard attitude in working with this particular patient. 

Personally, I won’t make Googling my patients a habit. Frankly, I just don’t have the time. And, I’m really not into the idea of digging up photos of patients who claim to eat healthy chowing down on chips and cheese dip or proving to alleged non-smokers that I know they’ve been lighting up. However, a brief online search to help out when there’s a safety issue at play isn’t a bad idea. 


What do you think? Is Googling your patients right or wrong? Or, is the issue not an ethical argument but rather one of needing a better lunch break hobby?


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