Privacy concerns abound as more physicians are ‘Googling’ patients

People research ailments and doctors all the time. Why should it matter when the shoe is on the other foot?

This may border on creepy, or not. It depends on whom you ask.

People have been turning to the Internet to learn about ailments, medications, doctors and health care facilities, helping them take a more active role in their care. However, doctors who Google patients may be accused of voyeurism and of breaching their patients’ trust.

Welcome to the world of patient-targeted Googling (PTG). Is this practice acceptable and even necessary? What if someone might be inflicting harm on himself or could be a threat to others?

There’s an interesting dialogue about whether psychiatrists who Google their patients will enhance or undermine treatment. That might not be creepy; it could just save a life.

Looking for guidance

An article published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine by Maria Baker and Daniel George of Penn State University calls for professional guidelines on PTG from the American Medical Association (AMA).

Even though Baker and George say patient-targeted Googling is not warranted most of the time, they provide a list of 10 situations in which PTG is acceptable. Some of these, according to an article on, are:

  • The doctor has a duty to warn of “possible harm.”

  • The patient has provided “evasive responses to logical clinical questions.”

  • The patient has made “improbable” claims about his or her personal or family history.

  • The doctor has suspicions “regarding physical and/or substance abuse.”

  • The doctor has concerns about a suicide risk.

Baker also says, “As time goes on, Googling patients is going to become more and more common, especially with doctors who grew up with the Internet.”

According to Science Daily, Baker, a medical geneticist, had an experience with a patient that inspired her to write the paper. A person consulted her about prophylactic mastectomies but she wasn’t able to verify a family history of cancer. After Googling the individual, Baker discovered she was capitalizing on being a cancer patient, which was not true.

Dr. Haider Warraich, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, recently provided a presentation on PTG, titled The Ethics of Patient Targeted Googling.


Building rapport

Some doctors Google their patients as a way to build empathy and get to know more about them. In many cases, the docs do so with their patient’s knowledge and consent. It’s when the search is done out of curiosity that the physician/patient boundary could be crossed.

Although the AMA and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) have issued general guidance on use of the Internet and social media, they haven’t addressed the issue of patient-targeted Googling, which has been called a blind spot.

Vicki VanArsdale is a freelance writer and health care professional in greater Washington, D.C.


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