Do Therapists Ever Google Their Patients?

Experts get honest about their search habits.
Ivanko_Brnjakovic via Getty Images

Google can be a blessing and a curse.

Employers use it to check out prospective employees and make sure they’re a good fit with their company’s culture. A little research before a first date can help you save time and feel safe before meeting a stranger. And when it comes to health care, you may check ratings and reviews of doctors or therapists.

But are they Googling you too?

HuffPost asked a number of mental health professionals if they ever research their patients before an appointment. Here’s what they want you to know:

For starters, it does happen from time to time ― but only when absolutely necessary.

Most therapists agree that Googling a patient before an appointment is discouraged and could constitute an ethical violation, but safety concerns can lead some to take pre-emptive measures.

“I often see clients in my home office, so it’s crucial to verify someone’s identity and make sure that what I learn in their initial phone consult matches what I can expect to walk in the door,” said Michele Moore, a licensed professional counselor, certified coach and relationship expert based in New Mexico.

“I won’t go [private investigator] on them, though,” Moore added. “A cursory search of their names on Google or Facebook almost always suffices and keeps me out of dangerous territory in terms of invasion of privacy or undue assumptions.”

“The off chance that something comes up that you know before the person does, or ever tells you about themselves ― how does one contain that?”

- Robin Hornstein, psychologist

Licensed clinical social worker Sheri Heller has also found that a little forward planning and research has been beneficial. Heller once had a client who she suspected was lying about a court case and his alleged behavior, which could have posed a risk to himself and others. This is information professionals may need to know. Heller said a quick search of the relevant case verified her concerns.

Otherwise, therapists take an unbiased approach.

Mental health professionals prefer to base their consultation decisions on information gleaned directly from the patient, partly so that they arrive at sessions without any bias and are able to offer impartial advice and guidance.

“I want to remain impartial to outside influence, and I want to see the person sitting in my office in as true of a light as possible,” said Patrick Schultz, a psychotherapist based in Wisconsin. “Seeing what is out there on the internet does not help me do my job better.”

Googling may interfere with the therapy.

Doctors may also avoid the temptation to run an internet search on their patients because it could mess with the therapeutic process, according to Erin K. Tierno, a Colorado-based licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.

“The most important part of the work, as far as I’m concerned, is the patient’s ability to reveal themselves as they develop safety within the therapeutic relationship,” she said. “There is significant risk involved in opening up to another person and exploring the unknown aspects of the self, and my job is to protect the safety of our relationship and of the therapeutic framework such that the risk is experienced as a challenge to grow rather than as a stripping away of security.”

Mental health professionals say it's important to focus on what a client tells them in person — not anything they might find online.
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
Mental health professionals say it's important to focus on what a client tells them in person — not anything they might find online.

The search results might not even be accurate.

Robin Hornstein, a Philadelphia-based psychologist, said the possibility of coming across an inaccurate search result is partly why she doesn’t look up clients. She also raised an important point about the chance of blindsiding a patient with the unknown.

“The off chance that something comes up that you know before the person does, or ever tells you about themselves ― how does one contain that?” she said.

Even celebrities get the same treatment.

Sometimes therapists see patients whose private lives are already public knowledge. But Tierno pointed out that celebrities are just like everyone else, and said it’s important for mental health professionals to realize they may not know as much about the person as they might expect.

“With regard to public figures, it is quite apparent that the private persona is profoundly different than the public persona,” she said. “It matters none to me what the external world experiences or projects onto a person who is engaged in a process of deep self-exploration.”

Kerrie Thompson Mohr, a licensed clinical social worker and a psychotherapist who runs A Good Place Therapy & Consulting in New York, said she would not Google a patient without prior consent and considers it to be an ethical violation. However, she has found that celebrities have needs that are different from other patients.

“We have worked with celebrities and public figures in our practice, and maintain awareness of how media affects their lives and mental health based on the information they provide to us, but we do not Google them or look them up on social media,” she said.

At its worst, Googling can compromise a patient’s trust.

Ultimately, Googling a patient can put a therapist on a dangerous path and sets them up to inadvertently reveal something they learned during their research. This could significantly damage the relationship they’re building with the patient.

“As a therapist, I am supposed to be an impartial party who is empathetic and nonjudgmental,” said Tammer Malaty, a licensed professional counselor at Malaty Therapy in Houston. “By looking up clients, I am abandoning that principle which can interfere with my ability to build trust with a client.”

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