Patient-targeted googling: the ethics of searching online for patient information

Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2010 Mar-Apr;18(2):103-12. doi: 10.3109/10673221003683861.


With the growth of the Internet, psychiatrists can now search online for a wide range of information about patients. Psychiatrists face challenges of maintaining professional boundaries with patients in many circumstances, but little consideration has been given to the practice of searching online for information about patients, an act we refer to as patient-targeted Googling (PTG). Psychiatrists are not the only health care providers who can investigate their patients online, but they may be especially likely to engage in PTG because of the unique relationships involved in their clinical practice. Before searching online for a patient, psychiatrists should consider such factors as the intention of searching, the anticipated effect of gaining information online, and its potential value or risk for the treatment. The psychiatrist is obligated to act in a way that respects the patient's best interests and that adheres to professional ethics. In this article, we propose a pragmatic model for considering PTG that focuses on practical results of searches and that aims to minimize the risk of exploiting patients. We describe three cases of PTG, highlighting important ethical dilemmas in multiple practice settings. Each case is discussed from the standpoint of the pragmatic model.

MeSH terms

  • Ethics*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination*
  • Internet / instrumentation*
  • Patients*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Psychiatry / instrumentation*
  • Social Support
  • Truth Disclosure*