Do Therapists Google Their Patients? A Survey Among Psychotherapists

J Med Internet Res. 2016 Jan 5;18(1):e3. doi: 10.2196/jmir.4306.


Background: The increasing use of the Internet and its array of social networks brings new ways for psychotherapists to find out information about their patients, often referred to as patient-targeted googling (PTG). However, this topic has been subject to little empirical research; there has been hardly any attention given to it in Germany and the rest of Europe and it has not been included in ethical guidelines for psychotherapy despite the complex ethical issues it raises.

Objective: This study explored German psychotherapists' behavior and experiences related to PTG, investigated how these vary with sociodemographic factors and therapeutic background, and explored the circumstances in which psychotherapists considered PTG to be appropriate or not.

Methods: A total of 207 psychotherapists responded to a newly developed questionnaire that assessed their experience of and views on PTG. The study sample was a nonrepresentative convenience sample recruited online via several German-speaking professional therapy platforms.

Results: Most therapists (84.5%, 174/207) stated that they had not actively considered the topic of PTG. However, 39.6% (82/207) said that they had already looked for patient information online (eg, when they suspected a patient may have been lying) and 39.3% (81/207) knew colleagues or supervisors who had done so. Only 2.4% (5/207) of therapists had come across PTG during their education and training.

Conclusions: It is essential to provide PTG as a part of therapists' education and training. Furthermore, the complex problems concerning PTG should be introduced into codes of ethics to provide explicit guidance for psychotherapists in practice. This report provides initial suggestions to open up debate on this topic.

Keywords: Internet; educational curriculum; patient-targeted googling (PTG); patient-therapist relationship; professional-patient relationship, professional guidelines.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patients*
  • Psychotherapy* / ethics
  • Search Engine / ethics
  • Search Engine / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires