Patients and Social Media: Do We Google?

 In a session with a small group of medical students we talked about patient relationships and social media. We read a piece that appeared in the NY Times Magazine in 2010 in which a resident “friended” one of her patients on Facebook.  The patient invited her to his site to look at pictures from a trip he’d taken.  Seeing the photos, the resident saw the patient as a “hot” guy, and not just the desperately ill young man in the ICU.  But later, when he tried to communicate with her on the Facebook site, she didn’t answer him.  Was she right?  Was she wrong?  What kind of commitment did “friending” him entail?

One of the students said that her patient’s family told her that the older gentleman she was following was a well-known sculptor and she should google him to see his work.  She googled his name and saw that he was indeed, highly regarded and quite famous.  She felt it really helped her have a fuller picture of her patient.  She was glad to know him more completely by knowing something that was important to him and about him as a person, not just his medication list and his daily blood count.  The students then talked together about whether or not they’d spontaneously google a patient.  One student adamantly said that he wouldn’t.  Another said it’s public information and there would be nothing unethical or wrong about it.  A third student acknowledged the middle ground in this discussion and the various motivations that would lead one to look up a patient on the internet.  He noted that the doctor/patient relationship is private but the internet has rendered all of us public.

I grew up in a small town.  The doctor was a family friend; my father played golf with him on weekends.  There was no need to google anybody.  When I asked the students if they’d ever friended a patient on Facebook no one said yes.  A couple of students spoke of a rare time of giving a patient their phone number.  None had yet played golf with their patients.

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