Posts Tagged ‘healthcare ethics


Health Care Ethics and Communications Online: When Doctors Google Patients

These days patients are almost expected to Google their medical providers. Does the same hold true for physicians regarding their patients? I recently read an LA Times article “You, your doctor and the Internet,” written by Judy Foreman. In an short excerpt of the article, Foreman writes about a physician, a psychiatrist none the less, who Googled a patient. The article states:

“’There may be times when it’s appropriate for doctors to Google patients,’ says psychiatrist Benjamin Silverman, chief resident of the McLean Hospital adult outpatient clinic.

“Silverman has a patient who stopped going to therapy without explanation. ‘I was concerned,’ he says. ‘I Googled her.’

“The patient was not upset, but Silverman felt he had crossed some kind of boundary. So he told her. ‘If we were going to continue treatment,’ he says, ‘I thought it was necessary for her to know that I had done this.’ ”

Since I did not write or research this article, I don’t know what information we are missing. For example, what happened after Silverman Googled the patient? Was a personal contact made? Why did the patient come back to therapy? Was it because of a contact made or was it simply spontaneous with no connection to the online actions? And of course we have no idea why the patient was in therapy to begin with, but does it matter? McLean Hospital is an outpatient treatment facility for mental health and substance abuse issues. That tells us enough. Having worked with numerous mental health practitioners on developing PR and marketing programs, I know the influence these professionals carry and the hesitation most have with putting undue pressure on their patients.

Which leads me to disagree with Silverman. I believe there are no times when it is appropriate for a physician to Google a patient. While the Internet goes a long way of breaking down personal boundaries, if a patient is choosing to leave therapy or to leave a certain practice, that choice is the patient’s and the doctor should leave it alone. While the debate in my office continues about the efficacy of Silverman’s actions, I personally would not approve of physicians, especially psychiatrists, looking into patients personal lives through channels that were not approved for disclosure in an official therapy related capacity.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Health care facilities need to clearly distinguish what online behavior is appropriate and what isn’t. While your social media rules may be clearly written (or maybe not), it is important that you don’t forget to include reminders about overall acceptable behavior with online communications – behaviors that didn’t exist before “Google” became a verb.

What do you think? Is it OK for doctors to Google patients? What about when the intent is clearly to influence a patient to return to treatment? Does it depend on the type of medical service being provided? Let us know your thoughts!

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