By Scott Hensley
You can't expect a generation of med students that's practically grown up online to refrain entirely from using Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. But a little decorum from the nation's future doctors would go a long way.
Results of a survey of med school administrators found a fair amount of unseemly online conduct by their students. Among the 78 med schools that responded to the survey, 60 percent reported incidents of students posting unprofessional content on the Web.
What were the common problems? The usual Facebook fare: profanity, depictions of intoxication and sexually suggestive material. Some of the more troubling examples went further, though, including violations of patient confidentiality--reported by 13 percent of responding schools--and "frankly discriminatory language" reported by 4 percent. The findings appear in the current issue of JAMA.
It's worth noting that some of this stuff was serious enough to lead to disciplinary action, including the expulsion of three students.
What's acceptable for the average twentysomething doesn't cut it for med students. As the JAMA authors write, "[T]he social contract between medicine and society expects physicians to embody altruism, integrity, and trustworthiness."
Most med students these days begin seeing patients within a few months of starting school, so the question of what's appropriate behavior online comes up early. Henry Sondheimer, senior director for student affairs and programs at the American Association of Medical Colleges, told us in an interview:
You want people to be acting in a professional manner toward their patients and patient privacy is a major factor in that. In this connected world, you have to think about privacy in ways that 10 or 15 years ago you didn't have to.
"I was curious to hear about the progress of her baby girl, but I wondered about the appropriateness of this interaction," he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine last month. Doctors need to keep a professional distance. Online networking amplifies the potential ramifications from inappropriate sharing of personal info.
In the end Jain learned the woman who contacted him online was bored with her job and wanted advice on applying to med school. Jain gave her a few suggestions, and, "Among other things, I recommended that she carefully consider her online identity."