Could your doctor Google you? Requests to curb unspoken habits

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By Creative Media News

  • Advocacy groups condemn physicians Googling patients without permission
  • Instances of physicians researching patients raise concerns about privacy breaches
  • Ethical considerations arise as physicians resort to online investigations

Advocacy groups stated today that physicians should not look up additional information about their patients’ lifestyles and medical histories via Google.  

A crackdown has been demanded by authorities on the unspoken practice. 

Dennis Reed, director of the over-60s advocacy organization Silver Voices, stated that searching for patients online is never justifiable. 

Mr. Reed stated that it is “unprofessional” and could “color” a physician’s opinion, adding, “It should not be occurring if permission is not granted.” 

If a physician advises a patient to abstain from alcohol but the patient chooses to do otherwise, and the physician then locates the patient on social media and sees them holding a glass, that would appear to be a flagrant violation of civil liberty. 

Mr. Reed desires “illustrations to be created” to deter other physicians from conducting patient research online, thereby averting the proliferation of this practice. 

Conversely, some argue that if a physician can rationalize conducting a patient search on Google for medical purposes, then such conduct ought to be permitted.  

Under the condition of anonymity, one physician admitted to Googling a patient their colleague was suspected of ‘prescription fraud’ and who had been expelled from a general practitioner’s office due to aggressive and violent conduct.  

At this time, the General Medical Council (GMC) does not have any official regulations prohibiting physicians from conducting patient searches on Google or social media platforms. 

The practice of physicians conducting online searches for their patients is “more prevalent than they or authorities would like to admit,” according to a BMJ article from the previous year. 

Several studies were cited in support of the claim that physicians were researching their patients.  

A 2015 survey of 530 Canadian emergency physicians and medical students revealed that 64 of them admitted to conducting patient investigations using Google.  

A 2018 survey conducted in the United States revealed that among 392 genetic counselors and trainees, 130 admitted to conducting an online search for a patient’s name or had contemplated doing so.  

One hundred and ten individuals disclosed that they had visited the social media site of a patient.  

The journal identified multiple occurrences in which physicians made anonymous confessions, in which they frequently violated this taboo.  

One doctor employed by an NHS trust in London’s emergency department disclosed that this action was taken after reviewing the medical history of an HIV-positive patient. 

Although the patient self-identified as an office administrator to the medic, the physician had reason to suspect that her medical history encompassed more. 

Therefore, upon the physician’s return home, they Googled the patient’s identity and discovered that she performed in adult films.  

It prompted inquiries as to whether she was still employed in that industry. Was sexual activity protected? Was she subjected to regular testing? “I was also aware that she was not taking her antiretroviral medications,” the physician told BMJ.  

Due to apprehension regarding potential safeguarding issues, the physician refrained from discussing this matter with a senior colleague for fear of repercussions for how they had discovered the information.  

A second anonymous case reported in the BMJ described how an NHS foundation year doctor conducted an online search for additional information regarding a patient admitted with a femoral neck fracture.  

The physician described the patient’s prior history of factitious disorder, a mental disorder characterized by intentional self-harm or injury through deceptive behavior.  

The physician, “annoyed” and believing the patient “faked a seizure for attention” during the doctor’s night shift, decided to Google the patient.  

The physician discovered a patient’s Twitter account on which she had posted images of herself in the hospital and stated that she was there following a diagnosis of terminal cancer. 

Nevertheless, the physician refrained from disclosing the information that was unearthed on Twitter, citing a desire to avoid potential repercussions.  

The doctor told the BMJ, “I’m not sorry I Googled her; it brought closure to a difficult night.” Information that is accessible to the public. I did not violate any regulations.’ 

A potential breach of trust between patient and physician, according to activists, occurs when there is no justifiable cause to search for the patient online.  

“It’s not a problem if you are comfortable documenting it in the medical record and can provide a justification to your colleague and the patient,” says Sam Smith of the advocacy organization Medconfidential.  

He does, however, suggest that the line is crossed when conducting an online search for a patient is not medically necessary.  

He provides the illogical hypothetical of a young male physician researching a young woman on Instagram after their encounter in A&E. 

Additionally, he discusses how an A&E physician ought not to be required to collect additional lifestyle details from a patient, given the unlikely likelihood of their subsequent visit.  

However, he added that a general practitioner, who sees a patient considerably more frequently, might have a valid reason to request such information. 

“If you are an A&E physician and you have searched for them online while off-shift, you will never see them again.” When you have a continual relationship with a patient, however, the situation changes.

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Trust is essential to maintaining relationships between physicians and their patients, as well as between the general public and the medical profession,” stated a GMC spokesperson. 

Good Medical Practice, our guiding principle, makes it abundantly apparent that patients must have faith in physicians about their lives and health

“Doctors must ensure that their behavior merits the confidence of both their patients and the general public in the medical field.” 

Additionally, they are prohibited from using their professional authority to engage in an inappropriate sexual or emotional relationship with a patient or a close acquaintance.  

Doctors must ultimately be capable of providing justifications for the actions they perform. 

We take concerns into consideration when they pertain to a physician’s fitness to practise.

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