Do you Google your patients? In our world of instant information, the urge to look something up online is natural. With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, “Just Google it!” is the instant response to almost any query. It’s wonderfully convenient when you’re wondering what year the Tower of Pisa began to lean or how many limes are required for a pitcher of margaritas, but when it comes to learning more about our patients, should healthcare providers refrain from firing up the search engine? Nobody likes to be lied to, and in medicine not having all the facts can be a serious barrier to effective treatment. But before you open your browser window, there are some risks you might want to take into account.
It may constitute an invasion of privacy
Ideally, all patients should tell the truth all of the time, but people are complicated. If your patients leave something out of their history or offer inaccurate information, it makes it harder to do your job, but they may have their own reasons for not wanting (or being able) to face the truth at that particular moment. It may take more time, but trust is essential. If you contradict, correct, or spring information on a patient that you’ve gleaned from Google, they may feel violated, which isn’t likely to improve outcomes.
It may degrade the doctor/patient relationship
When you’re working under pressure, the temptation is to find shortcuts. You may be able to access relevant information with just a few clicks, but what happens when an internet search begins to replace honest discussion? Avoiding a difficult conversation isn’t always the best choice for the patient. Empathy and communication are vital components of a healthy therapeutic relationship, and no search engine can replicate the value of a few compassionate questions.
As of yet, there are no hard and fast rules on the ethics of deciding to Google patients, and as the technological and medical landscapes continue to evolve and entwine, attitudes may change. Many practitioners feel that in cases where there are serious red flags, such as suspected Munchausen’s disease, factitious disorder, or malingering, a judicious use of online searches and social media could be an important contribution to patient safety. Those who work in the field of mental health often feel that the internet can help establish the facts in the case of a floridly manic or psychotic patient, and can also offer perspective in suicidal patients. Only you can know what’s right for your patients and your practice.