Date of Award

Summer 8-2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology

Committee Director

Kelli England

Committee Member

Darlene Colson

Committee Member

James Paulson


Patient-targeted Googling (PTG) refers to a healthcare professional searching their patient’s name or other identifying information on the Internet. Existing research is inconclusive regarding the prevalence and perceptions of PTG among psychologists, and the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethics Code lacks guidance on the topic. The present study used a mixed-methods approach with two arms of data collection (online survey, N = 94; and virtual focus groups, N = 36) to clarify PTG practices, explore PTG attitudes, and understand training and ethical guidance needs of psychologists and psychology trainees. Results revealed that 47.9% of psychologists and trainees reported having engaged in PTG. A thematic analysis revealed that PTG is used rarely and situationally, and PTG is more commonly used with forensic populations and in emergency rooms. Approximately half (52.1%) of psychologists and trainees reported that they do not perceive PTG as ethical. However, more agreed that it is ethical in emergency situations (59.6%) than for routine matters (7.5%) supporting that perceptions of the ethicality of PTG change on a case-by-case basis. Psychologists and trainees identified some clinical benefits of PTG, including for use in emergencies, information gathering, and avoiding dual relationships. They identified many detriments of PTG including breaching client rights, negatively impacting the therapeutic relationship, and crossing professional boundaries. Half (50.0%) of psychologists and trainees reported no prior PTG training. Existing PTG training and guidance were described as minimal and often taking an abstinence approach. However, psychologists and trainees perceived nuanced training as more helpful. A majority (80.9%) were in favor of receiving PTG guidance from APA in the upcoming version of the APA Ethics Code. The study also tested associations among PTG practices and attitudes and personal determinants of moral agency through the lens of Social Cognitive Theory. PTG practices and attitudes were found to be unrelated to moral disengagement, empathy, and moral identity. However, males reported more PTG and more liberal PTG attitudes than females. Recommendations include a call for ethical and practical guidance from APA, increased PTG discourse and training, and a consistent PTG definition and more accurate terminology, such as “patient-targeted browsing.”


The VIRGINIA CONSORTIUM PROGRAM IN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY is a joint program of Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk State University, and Old Dominion University.


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