Medical Students and Unprofessional Online Content

The article “Online Posting of Unprofessional Content by Medical Students,” published in JAMA (JAMA. 2009; 302(12): 1309-1215. subscription required) looks at the activity of medical students on popular Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, blogs and wikis. 

The article states than an estimated 57% of 25-34 year olds use social networking sites.  These 25-34 year olds are your medical students and your residents.  It is important to know that this study focused on the medical students not the residents out there in the work force at various hospitals.  The study found that 60% of the responding medical schools reported incidents of students posting unprofessional online content.  The unprofessional content ranged from suggestive sexual material, intoxication, drug use, discriminatory language, breaches of patient confidentiality. 

While this article focused primarily on the policies these medical schools might or might not have regarding unprofessional behavior, and the repercussions some students faced as a result of the unprofessional nature of the medical students online profile, it did not address the fact that their might be an actual need for education. 

We have all done stupid stuff in our lives, but until recently most of us did not have a permanent record (online or otherwise) available for all to see.  Go through the old keepsake box in your attic and look at the photos from your college days.  Bring back some memories?  Now somebody took that picture and at some point in time you decided it was worth keeping.  Did you blow it up and put in a picture frame on the fireplace mantel? No, you probably put it in the scrap book, or a box with your other things from college. 

Flickr, Facebook, and blogs are today’s scrapbook.  They record a person’s thoughts, feelings and pictures of a person’s life.  Unlike the scrapbook of old, these new scrapbooks are online, interactive and available for everybody in the world to see.  There lies the problem.  Patients, employers, colleagues could not go through your old scrap book in your attic and look through it and question your professionalism and integrity, but they can with Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, blogs, etc.

In addition to developing professional social networking policies, medical schools need to seriously look at conducting educational classes on professionalism in the online world.  Some schools have classes on medical professionalism in the workplace, but these days one’s private life is bleeding into and affecting the public life of the workplace.  I know there are some medical school libraries that offer classes on Web 2.0 and professionalism.  It would be interesting to know how many offer this type of class and whether it is tied into the medical school curriculum.  It would also be interesting to know, of the medical schools that have a class addressing online professionalism (either taught within their department or via the library) what percent have reported incidents of unprofessional behavior.

Remember I said this study focused on the medical students, yet 57% of the 25-34 year olds use social networking sites?  There is still the matter of those older people in that age range who have graduated medical school.  The residents and fellows out there working in hospitals.  Some hospitals have policies addressing social website behavior, some do not.  They too are on social web sites and I would be willing to be there are a few of them out there who have information and pictures on there that would be considered unprofessional and inappropriate.  Education has to start somewhere.

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