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Ethics Corner
Is It Ethical to 'Google' Patients?
Psychiatric News
Volume 44 Number 9 page 11-11

Q. We have learned that our psychiatry residents routinely" Google" their patients. On one recent occasion, the resident discovered that an inpatient was on a most-wanted list in another state for arson despite having denied a history of illegal behavior. Is it ethical to do a Google search on your patient's name? What is the ethical response to learning through a Google search that your patient is wanted by the police?

A. "Googling" a patient is not necessarily unethical. However, it should be done only in the interests of promoting the patient's care and well-being and never to satisfy the curiosity or other needs of the psychiatrist. Also important to consider is how such information will influence treatment and how the clinician will ultimately use this information. Psychiatrists should consider these questions before resorting to a Google search.

Clinicians who routinely act on information that cannot be verified as fact may be at risk of practicing incompetently. It is prudent to identify the source of information that is entered into a medical record.

The standard of practice for learning about a patient's medical condition is through face-to-face interviews, and this information may be supplemented by collateral information, for example, medical records or family members. Refusal or inability by patients to provide important historical information is not uncommon; in this circumstance collateral data may assume an important role. "Googling" a patient in such a scenario may provide useful information. However, information obtained this way, such as on a MySpace Web site, may not be current or accurate, especially for clinical purposes. Similarly, newspaper articles may not be reliable. Information such as birth records and sexual-offender registration is more likely to be trustworthy. Whenever information is obtained through a Google search, it is important to corroborate it.

Reporting requirements vary from state to state; those that supersede confidentiality regulations or laws are generally relevant to public safety. All psychiatrists should become familiar with their state reporting laws.

Commentary about this column and other ethics issues may be sent to Linda Hughes, director of APA's Office of Ethics and District Branch and State Association Relations, at lhughes@psych.org or (703) 907-8589.

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