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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Do Emergency Physicians and Medical Students Find It Unethical to ‘Look up’ Their Patients on Facebook or Google?

  • Author(s): Ben-Yakov, Maxim;
  • Kayssi, Ahmed;
  • Chu, Jennifer;
  • Hicks, Christopher;
  • Devon, Karen
  • et al.

Introduction: The use of search engines and online social media (OSM) websites by healthcareproviders is increasing and may even be used to search for patient information. This raises severalethical issues. The objective of this study is to evaluate the prevalence of OSM and web-searchingfor patient information and to explore attitudes towards the ethical appropriateness of these practicesby physicians and trainees in the emergency department (ED).

Methods: We conducted an online survey study of Canadian emergency physicians and traineeslisted under then Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP) and senior medicalstudents at the University of Toronto.

Results: We received 530 responses (response rate 49.1%): 34.9% medical students, 15.5%residents, 49.6% staff physicians. Most had an active Facebook account (74%). Sixty-fourparticipants (13.5%) had used Google to research a patient and 10 (2.1%) had searched for patientson Facebook. There were no differences in these results based on level of training, and 25% ofphysicians considered using Facebook to learn about a patient “very unethical.” The most frequentethical concerns were with violation of patient confidentiality, dignity, and consent. The practice wasusually not disclosed to patients (14%), but often disclosed to senior colleagues (83%).

Conclusion: This is the first study examining the prevalence of and attitudes towards onlinesearching for obtaining patient information in the ED. This practice occurs among staff physiciansand trainees despite ethical concerns. Future work should explore the utility and desirability ofsearching for patient information online. [West J Emerg Med. 2015;16(2):234–239.]

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