BACKGROUND: Although patients are commonly using the Internet to find healthcare information, the amount of personal and professional physician information and patient-generated ratings freely accessible online is unknown.
OBJECTIVE: To characterize the nature of online professional and personal information available to the average patient searching for physician information through a standardized web search.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: We studied 250 randomly selected internal medicine physicians registered with the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine in 2008. For each physician, standardized searches via the Google search engine were performed using a sequential search strategy. The top 20 search results were analyzed, and websites that referred to the study subject were recorded and categorized. Physician rating sites were further investigated to determine the number of patient-entered reviews.
MAIN MEASURES: Number and content of websites attributable to specific physicians.
KEY RESULTS: Websites containing personal or professional information were identified for 93.6% of physicians. Among those with any web sites identified, 92.8% had professional information and 32.4% had personal information available online. Female physicians were more likely to have professional information available on the Internet than male physicians (97.5% vs. 91.7%, p=0.03), but had similar rates of available personal information (32.5% vs. 32.5%, p=ns). Among personal sites, the most common categories included social networking sites such as Facebook (10.8% of physicians), hobbies (10.0%), charitable or political donations (9.6%), and family information (8.8%). Physician rating sites were identified for 86.4% of providers, but only three physicians had more than five reviews on any given rating site.
CONCLUSIONS: Personal and professional physician information is widely available on the Internet, and often not under direct control of the individual physician. The availability of such information has implications for physician-patient relationships and suggests that physicians should monitor their online information.