Getting to know your patients online: Helpful or unethical?

Most of the controversy surrounding patients and the Internet relates to patients seeking medical information in cyberspace, but a reverse dilemma is also gaining attention. Should physicians learn about their patients online?

There are two ways this question may surface for doctors: One is when a patient sends his or her doctor a "friend request" on a social media site; the other is the temptation to use search engines to sleuth out patients' information without an invitation.

For therapists in particular, the Internet challenges the traditional boundaries between patients and physicians. Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association has rules specifically governing therapists' online behavior, but ethics advisers maintain that online searches are not wrong--as long as they're done in the patient's interest and not out of curiosity, reported the Washington Post. For example, therapists might Google a patient who has gone AWOL or is unconscious to gain powerful (and publicly available) insights they can't otherwise obtain.

However, some advise caution with "friending" patients via social media and even maintaining publicly viewable profiles on sites such as Facebook and MySpace, both of which make patients privy to personal information a doctor would not typically share. "There are huge benefits to social networking,'' Dr. Daniel Sands, a director of clinical informatics for the Internet Business Solutions Group at networking giant Cisco Systems, told the Boston Globe. "But once you put information on such a site, "you are letting someone into your kimono, so you've got to be mindful about what's there," he added.

Ultimately, issues of Internet searching and connecting must be judged by the fact that the relationship between a patient and a doctor should be "professional,'' Jeffrey Barnett, a psychologist at Loyola University Maryland, told the Globe.

To learn more:
- read this story in the Boston Globe
- check out the Washington Post article