The bioethics of Googling

Is it ethical to Google your patients? A recent article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine examines this question, with Penn State College of Medicine researchers contending that professional medical societies must update or amend their Internet guidelines to address the ethics behind it.

“Many physicians would agree that seeking information about their patients via Google seems to be an invasion of privacy, violating trust between patients and their healthcare providers,” explain the researchers. “However, it may be viewed as ethically valid, and even warranted under certain circumstances.”

The article examines two scenarios in which ‘googling’ a patient is taken to be ethically permissible. One involves contacting patient whose genetic results are reassessed after many years and revealed to contain a deleterious mutation. The other involves a patient whose genetic counsellor suspects is lying about her family history of cancer. 

Abstracting from these two fictional scenarios, the researchers suggest a number of general situations in which ‘googling’ one’s patient would be acceptable.

The researchers label the lack of current guidelines the “google blind-spot”, and suggest that medical associations have an ethical imperative to address the issue. 

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