Future doctors share too much on Facebook, UF researchers say
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Would it bother you to know that your physician smokes cigars and likes to do “keg stands”? That your gynecologist was a member of a group called “I Hate Medical School”? That your urologist is a fan of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”?
That is exactly the sort of information many people share on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. According to a new University of Florida study, many medical students are sharing far too much.
“College has traditionally been a time in life when non-normative behaviors are considered OK,” said Dr. Lindsay Acheson Thompson, an assistant professor of general pediatrics at UF’s College of Medicine. “I’m not sure I would want to have a permanent, public record of everything I did 10 years ago, but many of our students are creating just such a record, and they need to understand the problems this may cause.”
Thompson and several researchers from the UF’s colleges of Education and Medicine did a review of the Facebook sites of 362 UF medical students and residents and found that a significant portion of them were publicizing personal information most physicians would never share with their patients.
The study was published this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The researchers looked up more than 800 medical students by name on Facebook, finding that 44 percent of them (for a total of 362) had profiles on the social networking service. Only 37 percent of those students had made their Facebook entries private — the most obvious safeguard against revealing too much personal information on the Web.
The Facebooking students seemed to be aware of the personal safety issues inherent in social networking: only 6 percent revealed a home address. However, students were looser with lifestyle information including sexual orientation (revealed by more than half of Facebook-using students), relationship status (revealed by 58 percent of students) and political opinions or positions (revealed by half of students).
But the numbers tell only part of the story. The researchers randomly selected 10 Facebook profiles for a more in-depth analysis, looking for hard-to-quantify items that patients or colleagues might find objectionable. Seven of the 10 included photographs in which the subject was drinking alcohol, and some form of excessive or hazardous drinking was implied in as many as half of those photos.
Three of the 10 students in the sample had joined groups that could be interpreted as sexist (“Physicians looking for trophy wives in training”) or racially charged (“I should have gone to a blacker college”).
Facebook is full of bluster and trash talk, and college-age users may feel that these items are not to be taken seriously. Yet patients and future employers, the researchers say, may not have quite so strong a taste for irony.
“Doctors are held to a higher standard,” Thompson said. “There are stated codes of behavior that are pretty straightforward, and those standards encourage the development of a professional persona.”
The medical profession isn’t the only career that requires young people to develop a professional identity. The medical school study was modeled closely on an earlier study that looked at the Facebook use of future elementary-school teachers studying in a college of education. Generally, the education majors’ postings were relatively tame, but the study found that many future teachers shared information to an unsafe degree. For instance, almost half of those with public accounts posted their home address on Facebook.
Associate professor Kara Dawson — one of several College of Education researchers who worked on both studies — says the goal of this line of research is not to discourage Facebook use but to make students aware of the demands of a professional persona. There is some evidence that students do begin to understand the impact of Facebook as they approach graduation. The study found that while 64 percent of medical students had public Facebook accounts, only 12 percent of resident physicians did.
The researchers say they have ample anecdotal evidence to show that medical schools across the nation have a similar problem.
“When we presented this at the Pediatric Academic Societies in May, we were overwhelmed with requests from pediatric program directors who wanted to know how to get their students to be more careful on Facebook,” said co-author Erik Black, a doctoral student and fellow at the College of Education. “This is a global problem, and ours is one of the first studies to address the problem head-on.”
The researchers note that awareness of this problem is rapidly growing, and many UF medical students have cleaned up their online presence significantly in the 12 months since the data for the study were collected. The researchers would like to take this awareness a step further, encouraging students to use social networking sites to enhance their professional identity.
“Social networking is a powerful tool,” Dawson said. “Both teachers and doctors can use networking to their advantage — but they need to create sites that reflect their professional identity.”