Patient-targeted Googling and social media: A cohort study of senior medical students in New Zealand

Aaron N. Chester1, Susan E. Walthert2, MBChB, Stephen J. Gallagher3, Ph.D., Lynley C. Anderson4, Ph.D., Michael L. Stitely2, M.D.

1Otago School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin.
2Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin.
3Dean’s Department, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin.
4Bioethics Centre, Division of Health Sciences, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Social media and Internet technologies present several emerging and ill-explored issues for a modern healthcare workforce. One issue is patient-targeted Googling (PTG), which involves healthcare professionals using social networking sites (SNS) or publicly available search engines to collect patient information. The aim of this study was to address a deficit in data and knowledge regarding PTG; as well as medical student use of SNS commonly associated with PTG.

The authors surveyed final-year students at the University of Otago Dunedin School of Medicine in January 2016. A subset completed focus groups and findings were analysed using thematic analysis.

Fifty-four students completed the survey (response rate = 65.1%). The findings indicated that PTG was uncommon (n=9, 16.7%). Attitudes were varied and context dependent. Most participants identified problems with PTG (n=36, 66.7%), favouring more explicit guidance on this issue (n=29, 53.7%). A majority viewed PTG as inappropriate for routine matters (n=47, 87.0%). Levels of SNS usage were high (n=51, 94.4%); with participants concerned that patients and future employers could view the content of their SNS profiles (n=19, 35.2%).

Many participants were concerned that PTG could retrieve misleading information that altered the professional’s perception of the patient, potentially harming their relationship. Healthcare professionals should consider the potential ethical issues raised by PTG in advance of their search. Concern was also expressed that PTG could blur personal-professional boundaries between doctor and patient. Similarly, blurred personal-professional boundaries were of concern for many students using SNS where the student’s personal life could be accessed by patients and employers, thereby negatively affecting their perception of the emerging professional.


Aaron Chester is a medical student with the Otago School of Medicine in Dunedin, New Zealand. Finishing his third year of medicine, Aaron has directed his research interests towards the ethics of emerging technologies within New Zealand healthcare systems and educational curricula.

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