The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published an article about how doctors should be aware of how they are portrayed online and consider taking steps to manage their digital identities.

It is an article that, for the most part, could have been written about any profession with its warnings about “slanderous information published about someone with the same name” or “by a vengeful…colleague or ex-lover.” And the advice given is also familiar: create your own web page to be sure correct information is available about you and use appropriate privacy settings on social network sites.

One piece of advice is different from other articles on this topic: “Talk to patients about how they are using the internet.” Danny Sands, MD, gives fellow doctors the same advice, but more because he believes that someone’s level of internet savvy is a key piece of information, particularly since many patients report that online information affects their health care decision-making.

In this case, however, the authors advise physicians, especially those treating young adults or adolescents “who commonly use the internet,” to stay alert to the possibility that their patients may know “revealing information about favorite sports teams, social causes, musical tastes, sexual orientation, and political leanings” about them. Indeed, the authors set the tone for the article by warning that “those seeking information…are potentially clinging, possibly personality disordered, or perhaps even threatening,” citing a 1978 New England Journal of Medicine article entitled, “Taking Care of the Hateful Patient.”

Since our study, Digital Footprints, found that most people do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information found about them online and few closely monitor their digital identities, I can see why the authors want to raise the alarm with their peers. In addition, it is a fairly common practice to search for information about someone else — half of internet users have done so, including 11% who searched for someone they are thinking about hiring. However, if that is “disordered” behavior, we have an epidemic on our hands thanks to the power of search engines.