NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Social media experts often warn that users should be careful about what they post. Such cautions often focus on repercussions associated with landing a job or with keeping one. But there’s more than just a job on the line. Your medical treatment, or lack thereof, also may be determined by what you post.
While few doctors these days seem to have time to spend taking your medical history, or discussing current problems, many, apparently, have time to google you, enough that Penn State College of Medicine researchers want professional medical societies to update or amend their Internet searching guidelines to specify just when it’s ethical to google a patient. Limitations are particularly of the essence, as the trend of googling patients is expected to escalate, particularly with doctors who grew up using it.
Of course, doctors googling patients may save patients from unnecessary risk and insurers money as in the case that inspired Maria J. Baker, a geneticist and associate professor of medicine at Penn State College of Medicine, to suggest certain guidelines in a paper she authored that was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Baker reported that a patient consulted with her about prophylactic mastectomies. Her family history of cancer claims could not be verified. A pathology report revealed that a melanoma that the patient had listed was nothing more than a non- cancerous mole.
Baker said she searched the internet and found evidence that the patient was making money from posing as a cancer victim.
"Googling a patient can undermine the trust between a patient and their provider, but in some cases it might be ethically justified," Baker says.
But questions remain. What if the doctor learns your political views, religion, or sexual preference and he or she is biased against it? What if the doctor makes erroneous assumptions about your life based on what he or she sees on the Internet? And what if the information the doctor finds is flat out wrong and refuses treatment for something real?
Take, for example, a case where the patient, Thomas, asked his psychiatrist for a reduced fee, and when he was late with payments, the psychiatrist used Google maps to find the value of his home, which was in the millions. The psychiatrist confronted him only to learn that the patient was renting a room in the basement for a small fee and doing work on the grounds.
Baker hopes to start a conversation that results in developing professional googling guidelines.
Baker asks, “How is this information that you might potentially learn going to impact the patient-provider relationship and how are you going to document the information about the patient that you might learn?"
Thomas paid his outstanding bills but did not go back to that doctor.
—Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet