Medical students may require guidance on ethics of social media

Medical students are using social media, but they could benefit from guidance for its appropriate use, new research from the Penn State College of Medicine suggests.

"We assessed how medical students engage with social media platforms like Facebook and found that they have a pretty sophisticated understanding of its risks and benefits," Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc, assistant professor of humanities, said in a press release. He and Michael J. Green, MD, MS FACP, professor of humanities, recently published the findings from a survey of 2,109 medical students in AJOB Empirical Bioethics.

Students were surveyed on hypothetical issues such as how they would react to seeing a compromising photo posted by another medical student with a borderline racist caption, or how they would respond to patient inquiries of a personal or professional nature.

Students were not only asked how they thought they would respond and what they felt was an appropriate response, but also about how they believed their peers would react or take action.

In many cases, a number of students did not believe they would follow the course of what they believed to be appropriate behavior.

When asked how a student would respond to a scenario in which a fellow student had posted pictures of public drunkenness with a borderline racist caption, almost 40% responded that suggesting the peer remove the content was the most appropriate action, but less than 30% said they would likely take that course of action. Just more than 40% believed both they and their peers would take no action despite less than 20% responding that it was appropriate to do nothing.

When asked how they would respond if a patient initiated a friend request on Facebook, about 40% said the appropriate response would be to send a privacy statement advising the patient that friend requests from patients were not allowed and decline the request, but only about 30% said they would take that action; about 35% said they would do nothing, whereas just more than 20% selected that option and the most appropriate course of action. Other questions were posed about patient interactions, and in many cases, far fewer said they would take what was more highly selected as the best way to handle the situation.

Some respondents felt that a degree of interaction with patients could be appropriate. "I think some patients would see it as above and beyond if a doctor messaged them to see how they were doing," one respondent wrote. "In this day and age, I think a lot of patients might actually appreciate that kind of personal contact from their doctor."

One student responded to the survey that having a professional Facebook account could have benefits for patients and the status of the practice. "If I had a professional Facebook account, (patients) could stay updated on things like schedule changes, get (appointment) reminders, join fundraisers … or stay up to date on public health type information," the student wrote.

George said students could benefit from guidance from their schools. "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," he said in a press release.

DisclosureThe authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.