Could your doctor be Googling you? Calls for repression of tacit habit

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Doctors should not Google patients to find out more information about their medical history and lifestyle, campaigners said today.

Experts demanded a crackdown on the unspoken habit.

Dennis Reed, director of the over-60s campaign group Silver Voices, said There are no circumstances in which it is justifiable to search for patients online.

Mr Reed said this was “unprofessional” and could “sway” a doctor’s opinion, adding: “If permission is not given, this should not be happening.

‘If a doctor told someone to give up alcohol and the patient makes their own decision not to, but then the doctor looks them up on social media and sees the individual with a glass in their hand, which appears to be a complete violation of civil liberty.’

Doctors are not allowed to access patients’ personal information unless they have a legitimate reason to view it, according to the General Medical Council (GMC).

Reed wants “examples” to be given to discourage other doctors from searching for patients online, to prevent the habit from getting out of hand.

But others say that if a doctor can justify Googling his patient for medical reasons, then it should be allowed.

A doctor MailOnline spoke to, on condition of anonymity, admitted Googling a patient who had been excluded from a doctor’s office for violent and aggressive behavior and another who they believed was committing “prescription fraud.”

There are currently no official General Medical Council (GMC) rules preventing doctors from searching for patients on Google or social media.

Doctors researching their patients online is “more common than they or authorities like to admit,” according to a study article published in the BMJ last year.

He pointed to several studies that found doctors Googled their patients.

One 2015 survey of Canadian emergency physicians and medical students found 64 out of 530 responses that admitted to using Google to research a patient.

Other USA survey 2018 found that of 392 genetic counselors and interns, 130 confessed to having searched for a patient’s name online or had already thought about it.

It also revealed that 110 said they had looked at a patient’s social media site.

The magazine raised several cases of this taboo commonly broken in anonymous confessions made by doctors.

A doctor working for London National Health Service confidence in the emergency department revealed that they took this step after making a decision HIV positive patient history.

The patient told the doctor that she was an office administrator, but the doctor suspected there was more to the patient’s history.

So when the doctor got home, he Googled the patient’s name and discovered that she was an adult film actress.

‘This raised questions: was she still working in this industry? Was sex protected? Were they testing her regularly? I also knew that she was not taking antiretroviral medication,” the doctor told the BMJ.

The doctor wanted to discuss this with a senior colleague in case of possible safeguarding issues, but did not do so for fear of getting into trouble for the way they had discovered the information.

Another anonymous case reported in the BMJ detailed how an NHS foundation year doctor searched online for more details about a patient who had been admitted with a femoral neck fracture.

The doctor explained that the patient had a history of factitious disorder, a mental condition in which a person pretends to be or acts on purpose to become ill or injured.

After believing the patient “faked a seizure to get attention” during the doctor’s night shift, the doctor decided to Google the patient because he was “irritable.”

The doctor found a Twitter account where the patient posted photos of herself in the hospital and said she was there after a terminal illness Cancer diagnosis.

However, the doctor did not tell anyone about the information discovered on Twitter because he ‘didn’t want the consequences’.

Some say that if a doctor can justify Googling his patient for medical reasons, then it should be allowed.

Some say that if a doctor can justify Googling his patient for medical reasons, then it should be allowed.

“I don’t regret Googling her, it ended a difficult night,” the doctor told the BMJ. ‘It’s publicly available information. I didn’t break any rules.

But campaigners say Googling a patient is a potential breach of trust between patient and doctor if there is no justifiable reason to look for them online.

‘If you are happy to write it down in the medical record and are happy to justify it to your colleague and the patient himself, there is no problem’, he says Sam Smith from the campaign group Medconfidential.

However, he suggests that the line be drawn if there is no medical need to search for the patient online.

A hypothetical example he gives that would not be justifiable would be if a young doctor searched for a young woman on Instagram after she was in the emergency room.

He also explains that an emergency room doctor shouldn’t need to gather more information about a patient’s lifestyle since they likely won’t see them again.

But, on the other hand, a general practitioner, who sees a patient much more regularly, for example, could be justified in seeking such information, he added.

‘If you’re an emergency room doctor and you get off shift and go look them up online, you’ll never see them again. But it’s different if you have an ongoing relationship with a patient.”

A GMC spokesperson said: “Trust is essential to maintaining relationships between doctors and their patients, and between the general public and the medical profession.

“Our main guidance, Good Medical Practice, is clear: patients should be able to trust their doctors with their lives and health.

“Doctors must ensure that their conduct justifies the trust their patients place in them and the public’s trust in the profession.

‘And they must not use their professional position to pursue an inappropriate sexual or emotional relationship with a patient or someone close to them.

“Finally, doctors must be prepared to justify the actions they take.

‘We consider concerns if they raise questions about a doctor’s fitness to practice.’

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