Med Students Put Unprofessional Info Online
Survey Shows Some Students Break Confidentiality of Patients on Facebook and YouTube
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
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
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
Federal law prohibits health care providers from disclosing a patient's
health information unless the patient has given his or her consent to do
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
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
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.
Pediatrics professor Lindsay Acheson Thompson, MD, says there is no doubt
that breaches of patient confidentiality are occurring more often than patients
realize, but she says posts that are personally embarrassing and potentially
career damaging appear to be more common.
In a study reported in July 2008, Thompson and colleagues at the University
of Florida examined the Facebook profiles of more than 800 medical students and
They found, among other things, photos of posters dressed as pimps or
cross-dressing. One Facebook photo featured the physician-in-training wearing a
lab coat labeled "Kevorkian Medical Clinic."
Some of the students and residents had joined Facebook groups that could be
considered sexist, racist, or otherwise vulgar with names like PIMP -- Party of
Important Male Physicians.
Seven of 10 randomly chosen Facebook pages included photos of the student or
resident drinking alcohol.