Patients who look for or are referred to physicians now have ample opportunity to seek background information on social media websites. Posted content can raise serious concerns on the part of patients about an individual’s suitability to practice medicine. “Social media sites like Facebook are powerful tools that can potentially influence whether a patient will choose a particular individual to be their physician,” says Casey White, PhD.

Exploring What is Deemed “Unprofessional”

Few studies have explored and compared what medical students, physicians, and the public (current or potential patients) feel is unprofessional for medical students to post on social media. Dr. White, together with Anuja Jain, MD, and colleagues, conducted a study that was published in Medical Education. Using various simulated Facebook screenshots portraying medical students, the investigators surveyed medical students, faculty (attending physicians), and members of the public on perceived appropriateness. Screenshots included students drinking, smoking marijuana, and posing partially nude. Respondents also reported whether they would be comfortable having the students
who posted the content as their future physician.


When compared with medical students, faculty members and the public rated the simulated Facebook images as significantly less appropriate. Faculty members and patients also indicated that they would be less comfortable having medical students who posted this kind of content on Facebook as their future doctor. All three groups rated screenshots with derogatory or private information about patients as least appropriate, followed by images suggesting marijuana use. Images showing intimate heterosexual couples were rated as most appropriate. Medical students were more accepting of postings involving same-sex relationships, alcohol use, partial nudity, and partying than either the faculty or the public.

“Overall, the thresholds of acceptable behavior on social media differed among the groups assessed in the study,” says Dr. White. “We hope our conclusions can be replicated and expanded upon in future research.” More studies are needed to determine if the public does or should use social media postings by medical students to make decisions about that person’s suitability as their physician.

Implications of Social Media Use                                  

Throughout the country, institutions have tried to regulate how social media is used by students and clinicians. However, Dr. White says, “It can be difficult to monitor social media use. Establishing guidelines may not fully address the issue of appropriateness. A key message for all of us is to be cognizant of how we portray ourselves on social media and recognize the potential risks associated with the content we post. We can never be fully sure who is viewing the content on these networks. We hope that our findings increase awareness of the issue and foster discussions about online professionalism.”