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
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
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
or (703) 907-8589. ▪