Psychiatrists prepare for the age of “patient-targeted googling”

Supplementing patient information with searches through Facebook or MySpace is presenting novel ethical dilemmas for psychiatrists, according to an article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. Most psychiatrists have engaged in “patient-targeted Googling”, say the authors, and find personal information ranging from criminal records, details of substance use, sexual activity, finances and suicide plans.

“Patient-targeted googling” can be useful in a clinical setting, but it is also a temptation to voyeurism and idle curiosity, the article warns. Google “searches could be analogous… to driving by a patient's home or otherwise infringing on a patient's privacy in a way that most psychiatrists would view as a boundary violation”.

"Most patients would probably be shocked that their doctor had the time or the interest to conduct a search like this," one of the authors, David Brendel, told the Wall Street Journal. "A good number of people would feel like their privacy had been breached."

However, the internet is here to stay and avoiding patient-targeted googling altogether is impossible. “This approach ignores the current reality of clinical practice and the further intertwining of the Internet and clinical practice that is likely in the future,” say the authors. “It also violates other important principles of clinical ethics, such as flexibility in the service of a particular patient's best interests at a particular moment.” ~ Harvard Review of Psychiatry, March-April

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