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Online Doctor Stalking: America’s New Pastime?

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media, July 15, 2008

We hear a lot about patient privacy and rights. With high-tech heavyweights like Google and Microsoft getting into the online personal health records game, it's likely that publishing medical information online will become the norm, rather than a futuristic pipe dream. Of course, patients will still want to know that their private information won't be accessed by the prying eyes of bosses, friends, neighbors, or relatives. And, through advertising pushes, test cases, and studies, the industry is working very hard to prove to patients that their medical data will remain private.

But what about the healthcare provider's right to privacy?

Many providers, especially those of a certain age, may not have any idea just how much of their personal information is easily accessible online to anybody—including their patients.

Anyone who comes into contact with patients, whether it be a physician or hospital executive, is accustomed to the dependency of patients in a clinical setting. Yes, we look to our doctors to cure what ails us, but we also want them to offer us comfort and support when we're feeling scared or sick. Some of us also want to know a little about our primary caregiver's history. Where did she graduate from, what do other patients think of her, where else does she practice? With the click of a mouse and few keystrokes, it's a breeze to get that information online at sites like ratemds.com and physicianreports.com. Unfortunately, it's also that easy to access far more personal information. Just by entering my doctor's name in Google or one of the dozens of other search sites, I can find out everything from where my doctor lives to her marital status to how much mortgage she pays.

Researchers at the Journal of the American Medical Association warn that just finding out where you live may not be the worst that can happen when a patient plumbs the Web for dirt on his doctor. Since anyone can write a Blog or create a Web page, including a disgruntled patient, there is the potential for some serious damage to your or your hospital's reputation.

"There may be slanderous information about a physician on the Web, published in a Blog or on a Web page, by a vengeful patient, colleague, or ex-lover," Tristan Gorrindo, MD, and James E. Groves, MD, wrote in an article published in JAMA.

Although you will never be able to completely control what is published about you on the Internet, there are some steps that you can take to control the information that is readily available. The JAMA article recommends that physicians Google their own names regularly to see what's out there, and if you do find slanderous material, be aggressive about getting it removed. Also, create your own Web page. Include basic information about your practice, such as services, address and hours.

"Such information may satisfy a patient's desire to find some digital connectedness to his or her physician, thereby discouraging deeper online probing,” say Gorrindo and Groves. If you are a member of one of the social networking sites out there, like Myspace or Facebook, set your profile to private.

Finally, you can always fall back on the old talking method by asking your patients about how they are using the Internet. "If a physician suspects that an Internet-savvy patient is engaged in seeking personal information about him or her, we recommend that the physician talk with the patient about the garnered information," they write.

Being knowledgeable about the information published regarding you in the virtual world can help keep even the most persistent Cyber stalker from invading your private life.


Kathryn Mackenzie is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at kmackenzie@healthleadersmedia.com.


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