Googling Patients: What if Something Bad Turns Up?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


February 11, 2014

Can Tweets and Facebook Be Used Against You?

I think tweets and Facebook pages are public. If you are putting information up there and someone sees it, in legal parlance, it can, will, and should be used against you.

On the other hand, if it is going to be used against someone, that person should be given the right to explain. Maybe it is an old picture. Maybe someone who did not like him posted that picture. Maybe it is a false Twitter account and the patient is not running it. I believe this is information that may be used to challenge what the patient says, but the patient has the right to respond, to explain, to say that it is a mistake or whatever they may want to say in response to that.

This was life and death, so if he had to start over again and promise to stay sober and be tested more frequently now, because the transplant team did not trust him, he might well die before he got his liver. I think that is what happened in this case.

This raises other interesting questions. Let us say you told a patient to go on a diet, and all of a sudden you see them reviewing barbecue joints and fried chicken shacks on Yelp. Is that okay? Should you reach out to see what they are doing out there? Some physicians have laughed and said to me, "I don't have time to be doing any of that." Sadly, we barely have time now to have a good conversation with patients, much less to chase them all over the Internet.

But information may come to you indirectly. It may be passed along thirdhand. My view is that public information is something that has to be taken into account. But if you are going to do that, you had better share that with the patient, giving them the right and the opportunity to explain what someone says they have seen on social media.

I am Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone. Thanks for watching.


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