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Most Psychiatric Professionals Google Their Patients, Survey Finds

May 17, 2016

ATLANTA – More than 93% of psychiatric professionals in an intercity hospital who responded to a survey admitted to using internet search engines to obtain patient information, and few informed patients of their searches.

Results from the first known pilot study to gauge the frequency of patient-targeted googling among psychiatric professionals were presented Saturday during a poster session at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2016 Annual Meeting.

“The Internet is a rich source of information that may or may not be clinically relevant, therefore, clinicians must be cautious and cognizant of the nature of information obtained as well as its significance in patient care,” wrote lead author Liliya Gershengoren, MD, MPH, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine.

Of 118 full-time senior faculty and 44 residents who practiced in the hospital’s psychiatric department, 48 faculty members and 34 residents responded to the anonymous online survey. Among them, 93% of attending psychiatrists and 94.1% of residents reported having looked up patient information on the Internet. However, most did not do so regularly.

The psychiatric emergency department was the most common site of frequent patient-targeted googling for both residents (40.6%) and attending psychiatrists (17.5%), according to the study. “Patient care” was the most cited reason, specified twice as often as “curiosity.” In other clinical settings, however, “curiosity” and “patient care” ranked much more closely.

The majority of residents said they “never” informed patients prior to an Internet search, but 2 of the 44 residents polled said they “frequently” informed patients in the psychiatric emergency department after conducting a search. Among attending psychiatrists, 10% informed private practice patients before conducting an Internet search, but most did not mention having conducted a search afterward, regardless of setting.   

The poster highlighted both potential ethical and patient care concerns associated with googling patients.

“Patient autonomy, privacy, and confidentiality are significant ethical considerations, which further raise questions about potential requirements for informed consent,” Dr Gershengoren wrote. 

Furthermore, “obtaining information about a patient without permission can impact the therapeutic alliance — a critical aspect of psychotherapy and treatment adherence.”

– Jolynn Tumolo

Reference 

“Patient-targeted googling and psychiatric professionals.” Poster presented at the American Psychiatric Association Meeting. May 14, 2016.

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