Med students' tweets, posts expose patient info

Survey shows future doctors post inappropriate images, info on social networking sites

Future doctors are too frequently putting inappropriate postings and sometimes confidential patient information on social sites like Facebook and Twitter, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In a survey of medical colleges, 60% reported incidents of medical students' posting unprofessional content online. Thirteen percent reported that students had violated patient confidentiality in postings on social networking sites.

The survey also showed that 39% of colleges found medical students posting pictures of themselves in which they were intoxicated, and 38% reported medical students posting sexually suggestive material. The study, published this week, surveyed deans or their counterparts at 78 U.S. medical colleges.

Of the schools that reported finding inappropriate student content only, 67% said they gave informal warnings and 7% said they had expelled a student.

People are frequently warned that photos and posts -- and even comments from friends and family -- on sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter could come back to haunt them.

Companies report that they check social networking sites before hiring a prospective employee, and an offhand comment about a work project or annoying colleague can easily come back to bite someone in the office.

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said people posting inappropriate material, such as pictures of themselves drunk, has long been a downside of social networking. However, when health care workers are involved in such activity, it takes on a new dimension.

"Doctors are in a bit of a unique position in society -- almost universally trusted by patients to hold some of their most personal information confidential," Olds said. "This relationship needs to exist, because if patients hold back information from their doctor, it can have a serious impact on their lives. If patients believe their doctors are unintentionally or, worse yet, intentionally revealing confidential information, then that trust will be irreparably damaged. And it's hard to believe that medical students, folks who are highly educated, are so stupid as to not see the downside of these social networking activities."

He added that aside from posting patient information online, it's also a bad idea for medical students to post pictures of the drunken party they were at the night before or information about their latest tryst.

"Even though this was probably done innocently and with no bad intent, the potential for damage to patients is large," Olds said. "Seeing their doctors partying and drunk is not the way to engender trust, particularly if you're the person who has an appointment with that doctor the next day."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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