I recently read an article in the New York Times titled “When Doctors ‘Google’ Their Patients,” which details one physician’s thoughts on whether or not doctors should look up their patients on the Internet.
What struck me was the fact that despite growing up with the Internet and being able to find information about practically anyone using Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, or Instagram, I have never once been tempted to find out more about my patients online. For me, our relationship was one that was contained within the confines of the hospital, and I never thought to “double check” on anyone’s history after the initial patient interview.
But this article made me think, are there circumstances in which I should Google my patients, to better patient care?
The most obvious cases I can think of for Googling patients are one in which the doctor suspects that the patient is lying to abuse the healthcare system. Malingering is intentionally faking illness for secondary gain, whether it is to get time off work, narcotics, disability insurance, avoiding jailtime, etc.
The article’s author shared a story of an elderly female patient he took care of whose drug screen came back positive for cocaine. She denied drug use, but then a quick Internet search revealed that she had been detained for cocaine possession decades earlier. The author doesn’t go into specifics but I imagine this could change how he approaches the patient’s narcotics regimen or how he speaks to her about drug cessation.
Then there are those with factitious disorder, where patients fake being sick in order to play the patient role. I have heard stories about patients who secretly ingest feces in the hospital, inject themselves with insulin, contaminate their central lines, or intentionally cut themselves in order to stay in the hospital and get treated for self-inflicted injuries. These red flags should be in the medical record, but sometimes these patients are not easy to track down and it is painfully hard to get outside hospital records depending on where you work.