Sept. 22, 2009 -- It is not uncommon for medical students to post unprofessional and even illegal information on social networking sites like Facebook and media-sharing sites like YouTube, a survey of medical schools shows.
In an anonymous poll of student affairs administrators from schools across the country, 60% said they were aware of incidents in which students had posted unprofessional content online and 13% said the incidents involved breaches of patient confidentiality.
Three of the incidents resulted in students being dismissed from medical school, but just half of the school administrators said they either had policies in place or were developing policies to define inappropriate online content.
Federal law prohibits health care providers from disclosing a patient's health information unless the patient has given his or her consent to do so.
But study researcher Katherine C. Chretien, MD, of the Washington VA Medical Center, tells WebMD that online posts by medical students and residents often include descriptions of medical situations that could identify a patient, even when the patient is not named.
The survey results were published this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
"We need to do a better job of making medical students aware of what is and is not OK," she says. "Keeping a patient's name out of a post may not be enough."
Most of the incidents reported by survey respondents did not involve illegal violations of patient confidentiality, but instead were potentially embarrassing and damaging to the students themselves.
Forty-seven of the 78 responding medical school administrators were aware of improper student posts, and about half of these posts included profanity or racist or sexist language. Descriptions or pictures of intoxication or lewd behavior were also common.
Of 36 specific examples of unprofessional posts provided, 10 were sexually suggestive, including sexually provocative photographs, sexually suggestive comments, or requests for inappropriate friendships with patients via Facebook.
Seven described or showed intoxication or illegal drug use.
In most cases the online transgression was reported to student affairs by a medical school faculty member or non-faculty trainee. Only two of the incidents were reported by patients or family members of patients.