The question of whether doctors look up information about their patients was discussed in a New York Times article a couple weeks back. The answer, according to Dr. Haider Javed Warraich was “yes.”
Dr. Warraich admitted to learning that one of his patients was an Olympic gold medal winner. Another was a convicted cocaine user.
“To my generation, using a search engine like Google comes as naturally as sharing pictures of our children or a recent vacation on a social networking site like Facebook,” Dr. Warraich wrote in the article.
In the 233 comments that followed the editorial, there was outrage, as well as praise. Some said they would be flattered to know that their doctor took enough of an interest to Google them. Others claimed it was voyeuristic and wrong.
Whether a doctor looks up a patient or not, the fact is, she can. Just like patients will look up their doctors.
When my daughter was born, she needed to see a pediatric orthopedist for her legs. I received a recommendation and took the Internet to find out more. There was the usual background information like education and hospital affiliations, as well as patient reviews. But I also found out he had lost his 3-year-old daughter in a sailing accident.
There were news stories about the incident and reader comments that followed each article. Some were mean, like anonymous online comments can be, questioning parents that allowed their 3-year old take sailing lessons. It was hard to think of him and his wife being berated by strangers who didn’t know their family. Judgment piled on top of grief.
I felt sympathy for him. So much so, that in the end I was afraid of bringing a sadness to any appointment with him. I chose another doctor.
The reality, though, is that the definition of privacy has been changed forever. Since the advent of the Internet, personal data and information is easily accessible online. In most circumstances, this isn’t a bad thing. It allows us to find out more about people we only want to know better.
But we must understand that a person’s digital footprint is only part of the story. You can’t get the true measure of any person from what’s online – doctor or patient. A bad doctor can be a wonderful parent. A drug user could have a tragic history of abuse.
Google-ing gives us the power to judge, but not the wisdom of experience. We need to know how to judiciously balance both when we take to the Internet and type in someone’s name. And if we’re unsure or questions remain, then we need to rely on an old proven method: a face-to-face talk.