Are Guidelines Needed for Medical Students’ Use of Social Media?

Are-Guidelines-Needed-for-Medical-Students-Use-of-Social-Media?These days everyone uses social media, including medical students and health care professionals. Where the use of social media gets blurry, in terms of ethical and professional considerations, is when those in the medical profession don’t separate personal from professional.

Ethical Concerns

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine conducted two studies in a survey of 2,109 medical students nationwide to find out how they used social media platforms like Facebook. In the first study, researchers asked respondents how they and their peers would (and should) deal with eight hypothetical scenarios involving Facebook. The scenarios used focused on issues of ethics, such as those involving doctor-patient relationships, peer relationships and privacy.

One hypothetical scenario involved a patient requesting medical advice from the med school student over Facebook. Sixty-one percent of the students surveyed responded that they should explain to the patient that this was an unacceptable form of communication. But 30 percent said they though their peers would send the patient a short message giving the advice requested.

Another hypothetical scenario involved a student saying on Facebook that she was caring for a local weatherman. Fifty-five percent of the students surveyed said they should address the peer violating patient privacy on the social media site. Almost half said this is what they themselves would do. Interestingly, 31 percent said they didn’t believe their peers would do anything at all to address the situation.

The researchers note that the students, overall, were mindful of the potential dangers associated with social media use and also had a good understanding that social media could be used/misused in a professional context. There was a disconnect, however, between what action students said they would take and what they thought they should do. Thirty-nine percent believed they should tell a peer to remove drunken images and bad language from Facebook; 41 percent, however, said they’d actually do nothing – and most also thought their peers wouldn’t do anything either.

One of the study’s two authors, Daniel R. George, assistant professor of humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, said that students “seem to understand the risks of using social media like Facebook, but there is clearly a need for medical schools to help students take the proper course of action.”

Facebook’s Role in the Admissions Processes

The second study focused on examining what students believe about how residency programs use Facebook in the admissions processes. The hypothetical situation presented here involved the discovery of inappropriate photos on an applicant’s Facebook page depicting beer drinking and wearing a provocative Halloween costume. The study asked students how the medical school’s admissions committee should respond.

The results are eye-opening. More than 60 percent of the students surveyed didn’t believe that the discovery of the inappropriate photos alone should result in rejection from the residency program, but should be taken into account along with other factors. One-third said they shouldn’t have any influence. Only 3 percent of students surveyed said the pictures should be a reason for rejection from the residency program.

What may come as a shock to applicants is that previous research has found that more than half of the medical school residency programs in the U.S. would reject applicants based on social media conduct deemed unprofessional, such as the hypothetical Facebook scenario presented to the survey respondents.

George said that this is another disconnect. Most students feel their social media profiles should not affect admission, but that conflicts with the reality that many admissions do screen social media profiles. The takeaway from the survey is that these are examples of how medical schools should be providing guidance and guidelines for students on the risks of using social media.

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