Given this orientation towards the utility of information in the service of the patent system, this Kat read with great interest a recent article that appeared on reuters.com on 13 February. Entitled, "Is it OK for doctors to "google" patients?" the piece summarizes an article by Maria Baker and Daniel George, both connected to Penn State University, which recently appeared in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, focusing on the question of whether there are (or should be) professional standards that set limits on the extent to which a physician may carry out an online search about so-called personal aspects of his patient.
The default position appears to be that physicians should refrain from seeking such information, except in a narrow set of circumstances. The co-authors are said to identify 10 such situations where such "googling" is permitted, guided by two overarching principles:
(1) Per Baker: “the motivation is to protect patients and prevent harm"; andAn example of where seeking out publicly available information was deemed proper involves a young woman who approached a physician, requesting to have both breasts removed, citing a long family history of cancer. The woman declined to undergo genetic testing. A genetic counsellor at the hospital searched the woman on the internet and discovered that she had been holding herself out as a cancer survivor and even raising funds on that basis. The physician informed the woman that he was not comfortable performing the surgery in the absence of the appropriate tests. To the contrary, the authors refer to a situation where a doctor who developed a course of action to improve his patient’s lifestyle, only to then search the patient via social media and find pictures of the patient "smoking a cigar". Here, the information only served to undermine the trust relationship between the doctor and his patient. Better that the search would not have been conducted.
(2) per Daniel: "there is something worth protecting in the physician-patient relationship,"
The Reuters.com piece brings several expressions of reservation regarding even the limited scope of the right to search suggested by the co-authors. Thus, the president of The Hastings Center, which engages in bioethics, observed that inconsistencies in patient statements, or between the patient and relatives, are not grounds to search online about a patient, because "there is too much wiggle room." She went on:
"Why is the physician doing this? It is going to bring benefit to the patient, or is it something self-serving or out of personal curiosity?"In the same vein, a 2013 policy statement from The Federation of State Medical Boards stated as follows:
"It instead can be linked to curiosity, voyeurism and habit. Although anecdotal reports highlight some benefit (for example, intervening when a patient is blogging about suicide), real potential exists for blurring professional and personal boundaries."The metes and bounds of acceptable bioethical searching online about a patient are still work-in-progress. Still, it already raises for this Kat the question of whether there are insights that might be germane to the attorney-inventor relationship, if for no other reason that both relationships rest on the principle of professional privilege. The issue suggested is whether there are such ethical-professional norms of behaviour between the attorney and the inventor that might reach beyond the privilege so as to limit the scope of the attorney’s on-line inquiry about his client.