Patients on the internet

I do love the internet: at home and also at work, where I can find things faster, often, than searching through a textbook (filing not being my strong point.)

The pros and cons of using the internet for diagnosis have been noted and an interesting recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine  – Untangling the Web – Patients, Doctors, and the Internet – makes the point well. Information has to be good.

But what about getting a bit more personal? I’ve discussed before my unease about the (lack of) evidence and harms of “doctor rating” websites – I don’t think that being able to search online for a doctor is all the UK government cracks it up to be. But what about doctors searching online for information about patients? The thought had never occurred to me. But an article in the  Harvard Review of Psychiatry: Patient-Targeted Googling: The Ethics of Searching Online for Patient Information  suggests that it is commonplace in the US, and comments that it might be a bit intrusive to google for information about patients.

I can’t think of a better word to describe it than “creepy”. Sure, the information on Facebook or whatever is in the public domain – but who is to say whether it is accurate. The authors say that consent should be obtained from patients to allow doctors to search…but should they really search in the fist place? Surely not.

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow

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