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 of 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, in and of itself, unethical. First and foremost, Googling a patient should be done only in the interests of promoting patient 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. The psychiatrist should ask himself or herself these questions before resorting to a Google search.
A clinician who routinely assumes information that cannot be verified as fact and directs treatment based on such information may be at risk for 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. The refusal or inability of 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 website, may not be current or accurate, especially for clinical purposes. Similarly, newspaper articles may not be reliable. Information such as birth records and sex-offender registration is more likely to be trustworthy. Whenever information is obtained through Googling, it must be corroborated.
Reporting requirements vary from state to state; those that supersede confidentiality regulations or laws are generally relevant to public safety. Every psychiatrist should become familiar with their state reporting laws. ■