The Ethics of Physicians’ Web Searches for Patients’ Information
Nicholas Genes and Jacob Appel
When physicians search the web for personal information about their patients, others have argued that this undermines patients’ trust, and the physician-patient relationship in general. We add that this practice also places other relationships at risk, and could jeopardize a physician’s career.
Yet there are also reports of web searches that have unambiguously helped in the care of patients, suggesting circumstances in which a routine search of the web could be beneficial. We advance the notion that, just as nonverbal cues and unsolicited information can be useful in clinical decision making, so too can online information from patients. As electronic records grow more voluminous and span more types of data, searching these resources will become a clinical skill, to be used judiciously and with care—just as evaluating the literature is, today.
But to proscribe web searches of patients’ information altogether is as nonsensical as disregarding findings from physical exams—instead, what’s needed are guidelines for when to look and how to evaluate what’s uncovered, online.
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