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Google the new Health Profession Regulator?

Health regulators in Ontario frequently publish pending discipline hearings and disciplinary findings online. Google finds these publications and often acts as judge, juror and executioner.

Recently, a Dutch surgeon was disciplined for negligence. She was initially suspended by the regulator. Google found and indexed the disciplinary decision. A Google search of the surgeon’s name revealed that decision, and a third party’s unofficial blacklist of doctors, including the surgeon’s name.

The surgeon appealed the regulator’s the decision. The regulator reduced the penalty to a conditional suspension under which she could practice. Google did not notice. They did not publish the appeal decision. A search on Google continued to indicate the surgeon was suspended. Google also continued to display the unofficial blacklist website.

The surgeon asked Google to remove its entry listing her as suspended.

Google refused.

She sued.

She won.

We receive many inquiries from health professionals who appreciate their official regulator. These health professionals have concerns about regulators publishing notices and decisions online, often indefinitely. Health professionals do not want to be judged by Google. The internet “NEVER FORGETS”.

The above Dutch case may be the first of its kind to have a positive finding for a health professional. The district court of Amsterdam ruled the surgeon had “an interest in not indicating that every time someone enters their full name in Google’s search engine, (almost) immediately the mention of her name appears on the ‘blacklist of doctors’, and this importance adds more weight than the public’s interest in finding this information in this way”. Remember, the public can always access information about a health professional on the official regulator’s public website (and need not rely on Google).

The judge found that while the information on Google (and the thirdparty black list) was correct, albeit dated, the pejorative name of the blacklist site suggested the surgeon was unfit to treat people, and that was not supported by the disciplinary panel’s findings. In our view, the regulator has the final say on who is fit to practice, not Google or another unofficial website. The public should consult the official regulator’s website, not Google or another third party.

Willem van Lynden, the surgeon’s lawyer, said the ruling was ground-breaking in ensuring doctors would no longer be judged by Google on their fitness to practise.

We are unsure how this decision might affect health professionals practicing in Ontario. However, we stand with the European court of justice, which in 2014 ruled that people have a right to be forgotten. Similar rights ought to be established in Ontario, so a regulator may effectively regulate a profession without unofficial and unnecessary interference from Google or other third-parties.

Likewise, the legislature should enact unambiguous and fair rules regarding indefinitely posting decisions on regulator’s websites. Otherwise, some regulators will remove decisions as they see fit, while others will post indefinitely.