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Googling a Patient Should health care professionals “google” their patients?

The twenty-six-year-old patient requested a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction because of an extensive family history of cancer. She reported that she had developed melanoma at twenty-five; that her mother, sister, aunts, and a cousin all had breast cancer; that a cousin had ovarian cancer at nineteen; and that a brother was treated for esophageal cancer at fifteen. The treating team was skeptical about this history, and they could find no documentation of the patient’s reported melanoma. The surgeon wrote the patient’s primary care physician, explaining that he had seen the patient and planned to proceed with the bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. The primary care physician responded that he was unable to substantiate several of the patient’s claims; some of his colleagues believed the family history to be fabricated. 

Trying to make sense of the discrepancies, the genetic counselor called a counselor colleague who had met with this patient. The colleague suggested that the in-house genetic counselor “google” the patient. The search revealed two Facebook pages linked to the patient. In one, apparently a personal profile, the patient stated that in addition to battling stage four melanoma, she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She provided a link to a site where she solicited donations to attend a summit for young cancer patients. The other Facebook page featured numerous pictures of her with a bald head, as though she has been through chemotherapy. The genetic counselor showed the Facebook pages to the surgeon, who then decided not to operate. 

Should health care professionals “google” their patients?  

The twenty-six-year-old patient requested a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction because of an extensive family history of cancer. She reported that she had developed melanoma at twenty-five; that her mother, sister, aunts, and a cousin all had breast cancer; that a cousin had ovarian cancer at nineteen; and that a brother was treated for esophageal cancer at fifteen. The treating team was skeptical about this history, and they could find no documentation of the patient’s reported melanoma. The surgeon wrote the patient’s primary care physician, explaining that he had seen the patient and planned to proceed with the bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. The primary care physician responded that he was unable to substantiate several of the patient’s claims; some of his colleagues believed the family history to be fabricated. 

Trying to make sense of the discrepancies, the genetic counselor called a counselor colleague who had met with this patient. The colleague suggested that the in-house genetic counselor “google” the patient. The search revealed two Facebook pages linked to the patient. In one, apparently a personal profile, the patient stated that in addition to battling stage four melanoma, she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She provided a link to a site where she solicited donations to attend a summit for young cancer patients. The other Facebook page featured numerous pictures of her with a bald head, as though she has been through chemotherapy. The genetic counselor showed the Facebook pages to the surgeon, who then decided not to operate. 

Should health care professionals “google” their patients?  

Rebecca Volpe, George Blackall, and Michael Green; and Danny George, Maria Baker, and Gordon Kauffman, "Googling a Patient," Hastings Center Report 43, no. 5 (2013): 14-15.
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