Doctors Googling Patients

Gregory E. Kaebnick

, 10/08/2013

Doctors Googling Patients

(Medicine) Permanent link

In the current issue of the Hastings Center Report, two teams of physicians and ethicists at Penn State consider the ethics of using online research and social networking tools to learn more about a patient who came to them with a request for a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. The patient’s story doesn’t quite sound right to the patient’s treating team, and when the team contacts the patient’s doctors at another hospital to discuss the patient’s history, it sounds still worse. Finally, one of those doctors suggests that the treating team try “googling” the patient to learn more.  When the search is performed and the results are passed along to the surgeon, the surgeon decides not to operate.

How to think of a case like that? Personally, I think I tend to give less weight to concerns about privacy than do many others who are interested in medical ethics. I might be likelier than some others, for example, to value an orientation toward human relationships, and a level of candor and interchange of information that seem to me to go along with that orientation, over the careful hedges that a concern for privacy might make more appropriate. As a result, I might be likelier to find that sharing information about somebody’s illness seems acceptable. For me, too, public health and safety concerns easily outweigh objections to security cameras in public places. But something about this story of physicians running an Internet search on a patient who arouses their suspicions doesn’t sit quite right with me.

The full case description, along with two commentaries, can be found for the next several weeks on the Hasting Center Report’s website in the Wiley Online Library.

The feedback we’ve received about the case suggests I’m not alone in thinking that the case strikes a nerve. Your thoughts would be welcome, too. Drop us an email at (Apologies in advance if we do not manage to reply to all of them.)

Gregory E. Kaebnick is the editor of the Hastings Center Report and a research scholar at The Hastings Center. 

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 10/08/2013 11:48:12 AM | 

I covered the same topic back in August 2012 on my Bioethics Discussion Blog thread "Doctor Spying on a Patient's Blog" where the issue was about the patient's psychiatrist doing the "spying". The thread was based on the article written in AMA's Virtual Mentor , And I had some visitor comments.

Can one argue that even though what the patient writes on the internet may be for "public" consumption, the question is whether for the purposes the physician reads that writing, the physician not at that time a member of the public but the patient's "trusted" physician.

On the other hand in making the decision regarding the ethics of the behavior of either surgeons or psychiatrists one has to consider what is the professional goal of these healthcare providers when faced with their duties for the patient. Is "trust" by the patient the main goal or is it the attention to resolve the current clinical situation to the best health benefit for the patient? What "trust" does the patient really expect? Trust for the doctor to do the best for the patient's health or trust to be fully informed and not to peek. Sometimes the physician just can't accomplish both. ..Maurice.
Posted by: ( Email | Visit ) at 10/9/2013 10:46 PM

Thanks, Maurice. Shall I put you down for "it's okay to look on the Internet"? I gather that you think health is the overriding consideration and that "patient trust" doesn't tell us much one way or the other.
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