Do you cyber-stalk your patients?

Doctors are increasingly googling their patients, according to a University of Melbourne bioethicist who says the practice raises ethical concerns.

Dr Merle Spriggs points to a recent survey that found one in six doctors had searched online for information on a patient, not seeing it as an invasion of privacy.

Studies from the US and Canada tell a similar story.

Dr Spriggs says doctors mostly believe they are doing it in the best interests of their patients, but there is also evidence that some are effectively online stalking — whether it is “out of curiosity, voyeurism or simply out of habit”.

This raises the issue of when a legitimate professional concern tips over into behaviour that is unnecessary and “creepy", she says.

“When a doctor searches online for information about a patient without consent, their role changes from someone who works with the patient to someone who observes and spies on them,” writes Dr Spriggs in the Conversation.

“From a patient’s viewpoint, this is likely to destroy trust between the two, as it shows a lack of respect.”

Dr Spriggs notes that patients can also be directly harmed when doctors act on information they find online.

She cites an example of a doctor seeing an online photo of a patient who is waiting for a liver transplant drinking alcohol.

That patient risks missing out on receiving a new liver, she says.

Regardless of any ethical concerns, Dr Spriggs believes it is unrealistic to expect doctors to stop googling their patients.

She points out that using Google is so common that it has become “the default way we find out information online”.

But she says patients should be aware that their doctors can see and use the information they put online.