By Alice Park
Sept. 23, 2009
Personal profiles on Facebook and other social-networking sites are a
trove of inappropriate and embarrassing photographs and discomfiting
breaches of confidentiality. You might expect that from your friends and
even some colleagues - but what about your doctor?
A new survey of medical-school deans finds that unprofessional conduct
on blogs and social-networking sites is common among medical students.
Although med students fully understand patient-confidentiality laws and
are indoctrinated in the high ethical standards to which their
white-coated profession is held, many of them still use Facebook,
YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and other sites to depict and discuss lewd
behavior and sexual misconduct, make discriminatory statements and
discuss patient cases in violation of confidentiality laws, according to
the survey, which was published this week in the Journal of the American
Medical Association. Of the 80 medical-school deans questioned, 60%
reported incidents involving unprofessional postings and 13% admitted to
incidents that violated patient privacy. Some offenses led to expulsion
"I didn't expect to find so many incidents of unprofessional conduct,"
says Dr. Katherine Chretien, medicine-clerkship director at the
Washington, D.C., Veterans Administration hospital and the lead author
of the study. As a physician responsible for counseling medical students
and residents, Chretien says she assumed that students were "educated
about professional conduct online and used better judgment."
But medical students, it seems, are no different from the rest of us
when it comes to posting drunken party pictures online or tweeting about
their daily comings, goings and musings - however inappropriate they may
be. Many students feel they are entitled to post what they wish on their
personal profiles, maintaining that the information is in fact personal
and not subject to the same policies and guidelines that govern their
professional behavior on campus. Though medical students would agree
that physicians - and other professionals, like teachers - should be
held to a higher standard of integrity by society, the new study
suggests that they're confused by how rules apply, especially in
cyberspace, once the white coat comes off. "They view their Facebook
pages as their Internet persona," says Dr. Neil Parker, senior associate
dean for student affairs for graduate medical education at UCLA's David
Geffen School of Medicine. "They think it's something only for their
friends, even though it's not private."
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