Medical students post confidential patient data on social 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 per cent 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 per cent of colleges found medical students posting pictures of themselves in which they were intoxicated, and 38 per cent 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 per cent said they gave informal warnings and 7 per cent 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.

He said 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.”

Olds 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.”

Posting hazards?

These inappropriate posts by future doctors also throws into sharp focus a related issue – potential damage your candid online posts can do to your career prospects.

Worried? How to delete – not just ‘deactivate’ – your Facebook account

The dominant view is people should never put something too personal or embarrassing online that might turn off potential employers doing a background check.

But at least one hiring manager begs to differ.

“I think that’s just popular nonsense,” said Sean Ryan, senior vice -president of engineering and a hiring manager at online measurement tools vendor Lyris, Inc. “If you’re a good engineer … and you’ve got a good resume and we check out your profile on LinkedIn and your last employer said good things about you, I don’t care if you binge drink on weekends. I really don’t. What I need to know is whether you’re capable of doing the job.”
Ryan says he’s forgotten 80 per cent of what he did in college. “The 20 per cent I remember was probably completely inappropriate. People made a big deal about Clinton admitting he smoked pot in college. Well, for goodness sakes, lots of people did and it didn’t make them less capable of doing their jobs.”

Ryan “doesn’t care” if applicants “binge drink on weekends” as long as they can do the job.

He said he doesn’t recommend hiring managers or HR professionals go to “what was intended by the candidate to be a social site for friends to determine if they’re good candidate.” So skip Facebook and instead check out Plaxo, for instance, a professional social networking site used by the younger crowd along the lines of LinkedIn.

“Online reputation does matter!”

But Chandlee Bryan, a career coach in New York, takes the more conventional approach — meaning she does check all sites – a position that’s backed up by recent research she has conducted on job seekers using LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

“My first finding is that the baseline of any successful job search now is online reputation management: i.e., knowing what information is floating in the cybersphere attached to your name,” Bryan said.

Specific to Facebook, which is the subject of most of the discussion about online embarrassments, Bryan had this to say: “Recruiters generally don’t search Facebook for candidates, but may review your profile to screen you out” — for example, scout for signs of excess drinking, drugs and other potential problems.

Harry Urschel, owner of the staffing/recruiting company e-Executives, definitely checks out prospective clients for character flaws or bad judgment.

An applicant sent recruiter Harry Urschel a link to his Web resume — complete with the job seeker’s favorite porn sites at the end.

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have hurt themselves online because of inappropriate things they put out there. There are a lot of things you don’t necessarily want an employer to come across,” Urschel said.

“If I’m working with a candidate I’ll Google them and see what I can find so I’m not embarrassed later,” he continued. “I know a lot of recruiters and hiring managers at companies are certainly doing the same thing. There are a lot of people I know that have definitely stopped working with people because of things they found.”
For example, about a year ago somebody sent Urschel a resume with a link to his personal Web page.

“And usually I don’t bother clicking through, but this time I did. And his Web page had some family information and had his resume and was fine. But it kept scrolling down and he had a section at the bottom of his Web site of links to his favorite porn sites. It’s probably not the best impression he wants to put out there.”

On Twitter especially, Urschel said, it’s easy to get into other conversations “that will get you in trouble,” so you need to stay focused on the original topic.

He said these days there is a lot of conversation about “personal branding,” which to him “is in many ways a fad concept.” But “it is true that you have to be careful of the image you’re portraying and what’s online.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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