Last weekend, I was on a panel for internal medicine residents at the American College of Physicians Council of Associates forum in San Diego. I was invited by Erin Dunnigan and Baligh Yehia, the Co-Chairs of the Council, a position that I have also held earlier in my career. The topic – was about the debate on social media use among medical trainees and whether it was professional. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to do it with my rock star colleague Darilyn Moyer, the program director at Temple, who also moderated last years panel on Mean Girls in Medicine with me.
The Temple chief resident, Brooke Worster, started us off by asking the much debated anathema in medical education – what is professionalism – and if it is in the digital domain, it’s even harder to describe. Then she proceeded to show some videos of medical students that you could say exercise some creativity – from the harmlessly funny to incredibly poor taste and ranging from schools such as UT Southwestern to my own alma mater Washington University in St. Louis.
The questions from the residents were spot on and here were some of the Q&A that followed:
Medical trainees are people too – shouldn’t they able to express themselves in ways using colorful medical humor either in a show or their profile?
The objection is not for class shows and parodies – those have existed since the very first class medical show that took place at the University of Michigan and called the Galen’s Smoker (this year’s name- “Spleen Girls”). The issue is more complicated with public consumption of materials never meant to be seen by a public audience. Then, when a video is seen by a patient, an employer, or another interested stakeholder, alumni, philanthropists, those that donate their body to science (to name a few), the meaning of the video is not clear and those individuals often lose faith in the medical system. There have been cases where patients have refused care by a residency trainee after seeing their Facebook profile with images that don’t seem suitable for their doctor. So, while medical trainees deserve the right to blow off some steam and exercise creativity, it should not compromise their ability to see patients or work in the future.
Shouldn’t we just trust students and residents to police themselves on social media?
The answer here is that while most students are capable of policing themselves, a breach of professionalism on the internet is like a NEVER event – especially if it relates to patient information or trainee information that could result in harm. So, opting for a putting out fires approach will not be effective and it’s important for medical educators to teach students and residents about responsible use of social media. The good news is that the more one uses social media, the more likely they are to be able to draw that line in the sand. Our research shows that superusers, or more frequent users, are more likely to oppose regulation but are also more likely to believe that they are responsible for portraying a professional image. So, by teaching people to use it appropriately, we may actually prevent violations and breaches.
Should schools screen social media as part of its application process?
Interestingly, some students and faculty in the audience advocated for ‘second chances’ and redemption if a student had a inappropriate picture posted since Facebook privacy settings are initially confusing and a student could be misguided initially. But, let’s face it… screening applications for admission to medical school or residency is hard and takes time. People are looking for ANY red flag to set downgrade your application compared to others. Don’t give them a reason. Medicine is not unlike any other industry in which candidates are interviewed to see if they can get the job done and also represent that organization appropriately. If a video is posted that showcases a student in a tasteless parody with your school logo or name in the background, a hospital or residency is not going to want to take that risk with you.
What can medical schools do to protect themselves?
Well, for starters, schools can have a social media policy that highlight that do’s and don’ts in this area. Unfortunately, in a recent study by @kind4kids and @MotherinMedicine, most schools do not so we have room for improvement. The second thing is that schools can also deliver education, not only on the negatives – or how NOT to use social media, but they can also encourage and role model proper use of social media through disseminating course materials, student press, recruitment and admissions, or communicating with their students. A recent post on a new student blog actually has a Poll this week asking students if they would want to receive information via social media and the majority say yes.
What can students do to ensure that their digital image is safe?
This question actually came from a student that has the same problem as me – a person with another name who happens to be garnering attention for the wrong reasons – in my case, it’s someone with my same name who is an ophthalmologist and has been accused of blinding patients and has many negative patient testimonials. So, what can I do – well I initially started on LinkedIn to try to distinguish myself from this person and I also took control of my own digital footprint using a Google Profile to highlight who I am and the links on the web that I want people to see. (You’ll notice my Facebook profile is NOT on my Google Profile).
The same old adage about Vegas applies here- whatever happens on social media stays on social media. Therefore, just like the national dialogue on health information technology, its important for medical educators and trainees to engage in a constructive dialogue and establish policies that both set standards and teach others how to meaningfully use social media.
–Vineet Arora, MD