Disclosures: Pendergrast reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
January 04, 2021
1 min read

Nearly 1 in 4 physicians report personal attacks on social media, small survey shows

Disclosures: Pendergrast reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
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Almost one-quarter of physicians said they were personally attacked on social media, and one in six female physicians reported being sexually harassed, results from a small survey showed.

Tricia R. Pendergrast, BA, a medical student at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and colleagues said their study was the first they knew of that investigated physician experiences with online harassment.

According to researchers, 23.3% of physicians reported being personally attacked on social media.
Reference: Pendergrast TR, et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2021;doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7235.

Each of the six researchers tweeted out a survey that gathered demographic information and asked the following questions: “Have you ever been personally targeted or attacked on social media?” and “Have you ever been sexually harassed on social media?” There was also a text box for respondents to provide, if he or she chose, a description of any incident related to the survey. The researchers tagged 10 physicians on Twitter asking them to share the polls.

Pendergrast and colleagues reported in JAMA Internal Medicine that 464 people who identified themselves as United States physicians completed the survey. Of that total, 42.2% were men and 57.8% were women or nonbinary; 76.9% were white, 15.7% were Asian and 2.6% were Black. The mean age of all respondents was 39 years.

Among all respondents, 23.3% reported being personally attacked on social media, with no significant difference between female and male physicians (24.2% vs. 21.9%). Conversely, women were significantly more likely than men (16.4% vs. 1.5%, P <. 001) to report online sexual harassment. The latter findings align with previous data demonstrating a higher number of female physicians reporting sexual harassment offline, according to the researchers.

Some of the most common open-ended responses that 46 physicians provided contained themes consistent with advocacy (eg, vaccines, guns, abortions and smoking), work (eg, patient care) and personal information (eg, race and religion). According to the researchers, “two physicians described threats of assault, including a Black woman who reported being threatened with rape from White supremacists owing to her civil rights advocacy.”

Noting the “substantial role” social media plays in health care, education and research, Pendergrast and colleagues encouraged employers and professional societies to “support physicians facing online harassment and work to mitigate its incidence and impact.” The researchers also said that future studies should further investigate online attacks and harassment of physicians, especially Hispanic/Latinx and Black physicians, “who were underrepresented in our study.”