Med school applicants might want to rethink that last tweet

Putting irresponsible content online also could hurt the chances of being accepted to residency programs, a new study says.

By — Posted Nov. 27, 2012

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When applying for medical school or residency programs, students need to be diligent about more than what they put on the pages of their application. They should be cautious about what they post on social networking sites.

Medical school and residency program officials increasingly are taking such sites into consideration as they determine admissions, according to a study published online Nov. 8 in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, a BMJ publication.

“This may become a standard way of evaluating applicants,” said Carl I. Schulman, MD, MSPH, PhD, lead study author and associate professor of surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

A 2009 survey of 600 medical school admissions officers and residency directors found that only 9% of respondents use social media websites to evaluate students as part of the admissions process. But 53% said applicants could jeopardize their chances of being accepted by posting unprofessional information online, according to the study (link).

Twenty-three percent of respondents said they thought admissions officials should use Internet searches, and 20% said they should use social networking sites to obtain additional information about applicants. Meanwhile, 58% said schools and residency programs were within their rights to search for an applicant’s name on social networking sites, but 19% believed doing so was a violation of privacy.

The popularity of social networking websites has grown significantly in the three years since the survey was conducted, Dr. Schulman said.

“The study most definitely underreports the incidence of what is occurring,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more prevalent.”

The findings aren’t surprising, said Geoffrey Young, PhD, senior director of student affairs and programs at the Assn. of American Medical Colleges.

“The information is out there,” he said. “All you have to do is Google someone, and many schools have Facebook or Twitter accounts.”

In his previous position as associate dean for admissions at the Georgia Health Sciences University’s Medical College of Georgia, Young told students to be careful and think about how social network postings reflect on them in the professional world.

Admissions officials look at issues of professionalism and integrity, so if there is anything to suggest a candidate lacks those qualities, they would take note, Young said.

“Students should really think that medicine is a profession, and that you will be caring for individuals, families and communities,” Young said. “I encourage them to be a little more forward-thinking about what they do today and recognize that it has some impact on what they can do in the future.”

There is no standard guideline in how schools should utilize social media and social networkings, Young said.

At its Interim Meeting in November 2010, the American Medical Association adopted policy advising medical students and physicians to maintain professionalism online. They should respect patient confidentiality, use privacy settings to protect their personal information and maintain appropriate professional boundaries when communicating with patients online, says the policy on professional in the use of social media (link).

Several medical schools have adopted similar policies. Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, for example, advises students to be professional when posting on social networking websites and not violate patient privacy laws.

“It reminds the students that their public persona needs to reflect the fact that they are now an MD,” Dr. Schulman said.

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Role of social media in med school, residency selection

Some medical schools and residency programs say they will use the Internet and social networking websites to find information about students. A recent survey showed how schools and programs viewed future use of these tools:

Action Agreed Neutral Disagreed
Plan to search Internet 15% 29% 57%
Plan to search social networking sites 14% 29% 58%
Will use Internet to augment applications 23% 40% 37%
Will use social networking to augment applications 20% 40% 40%

Source: “Influence of social networking websites on medical school and residency selection process,” Postgraduate Medical Journal, published online Nov. 8 (link)

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