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UF Study: Tomorrow's doctors are sharing too much on Facebook

It's good advice all young professionals: If you're going to put something personal on Facebook, be sure that it doesn't negatively impact your professional life.

And it's especially important for doctors. A UF study released today says medical students are sharing too much personal info on Facebook -- things doctors would never tell their patients.

The most surprising thing to me was that a majority of them didn't make their profile private. I'm all for having fun on Facebook, but seriously folks, make it friends only.

Here's part of the UF release:

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Would it bother you to know that your physician smokes cigars and likes to do "keg stands"? That your gynecologist was a member of a group called "I Hate Medical School"? That your urologist is a fan of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"?

That is exactly the sort of information many people share on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. According to a new University of Florida study, many medical students are sharing far too much.

"College has traditionally been a time in life when non-normative behaviors are considered OK," said Dr. Lindsay Acheson Thompson, an assistant professor of general pediatrics at UF's College of Medicine. "I’m not sure I would want to have a permanent, public record of everything I did 10 years ago, but many of our students are creating just such a record, and they need to understand the problems this may cause."

Thompson and several researchers from the UF's colleges of Education and Medicine did a review of the Facebook sites of 362 UF medical students and residents and found that a significant portion of them were publicizing personal information most physicians would never share with their patients.

The study was published this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The researchers looked up more than 800 medical students by name on Facebook, finding that 44 percent of them (for a total of 362) had profiles on the social networking service. Only 37 percent of those students had made their Facebook entries private — the most obvious safeguard against revealing too much personal information on the Web.

The Facebooking students seemed to be aware of the personal safety issues inherent in social networking: only 6 percent revealed a home address. However, students were looser with lifestyle information including sexual orientation (revealed by more than half of Facebook-using students), relationship status (revealed by 58 percent of students) and political opinions or positions (revealed by half of students).

But the numbers tell only part of the story. The researchers randomly selected 10 Facebook profiles for a more in-depth analysis, looking for hard-to-quantify items that patients or colleagues might find objectionable. Seven of the 10 included photographs in which the subject was drinking alcohol, and some form of excessive or hazardous drinking was implied in as many as half of those photos.

Three of the 10 students in the sample had joined groups that could be interpreted as sexist ("Physicians looking for trophy wives in training") or racially charged ("I should have gone to a blacker college").

Facebook is full of bluster and trash talk, and college-age users may feel that these items are not to be taken seriously. Yet patients and future employers, the researchers say, may not have quite so strong a taste for irony.

"Doctors are held to a higher standard," Thompson said. "There are stated codes of behavior that are pretty straightforward, and those standards encourage the development of a professional persona."

Click here to read the full release from UF.


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The implication running through the UF study is an inherently problematic assumption our society makes about certain professions, including law, medicine, and education. The underlying belief -- that some "lifestyles" are "inappropriate" (most notable marital status and sexual orientation) for individuals in certain professions -- is never questioned. Is it really taboo for a doctor to be gay, or to chose to drink (and heaven forbid be photographed doing so), or to smoke a cigar? And is it really a secret that medical school -- like so many other post-bac degree programs -- puts severe stress on students, so much so that they might "hate" it?

I actually think publicizing the fact that our doctors (or, more frequently, the residents and interns that do their work) are human is a good thing. It helps diminish the increasingly unpopular sentiment that doctors (and nurses and teachers and professors) are somehow superhuman, superior in knowledge and virtue, and worthy of all of our trust. How many patients have failed to get a vital second opinion for fear of offending their doctor? If we view doctors as human, and doctors view themselves as human, it is possible that patients may actually take a more active role in treatment and prevention. The overall negative attitude of the UF researchers suggests that they do not question the notion that doctors should be god-like in their virtue, and maintain "white coat" superiority over their patients. If Facebook really helps challenge that notion in a serious way as current medical students become practicing doctors, then I'd say that's a positive role that social networking sites can play in our society,

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