Medical History Made Public On Facebook And Twitter

According to a survey of medical schools, patients of the student doctors are running a high risk of having their doctor-patient confidentiality breached.  Young doctors-to-be are using Facebook and Twitter, and even blogs and YouTube, to illegally reveal details about their patients’ cases.

The Journal of the American Medical Association discovered that thirteen percent of those surveyed stated that their confidentiality had been violated, and sixty percent claimed that “unprofessional content” had been posted on the Web.

Much of the unprofessional material being complained of consisted of obscenities, drinking, and other behaviors that, while not surprising from college-age young adults, are disconcerting from soon-to-be medical professionals.  In several cases, the medical student detailed cases in their postings, sometimes in terms so specific that the patients were easy to identify.

One incident involved a patient’s medical details being made public on Facebook, as reported by Associated Press.  In the same report, another incident involved a patient receiving indecent proposals from the medical student.

The results of the survey were taken from school deans.  While breaches of confidence are admittedly uncommon, it can be assumed that there are many more violations that are not detected or made public. A demonstration of this assertion is offered by Dr. Katherine Chretien, from the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC.  In a search of YouTube postings, Dr. Chretien found a posting in which students were acting inappropriately with a cadaver.  It is unknown, however, whether the dead body was authentic.

Though 7 percent of known cases end with the student being expelled, most of the medical students caught behaving inappropriately were let off with little more than a stern warning.  The disturbing statistic is that 62 percent of the medical schools surveyed have no structure or rules in place to oversee the students’ use of microblogging and social networks.  Most schools are not addressing the concern in any way whatsoever.

Networks such as Facebook and Twitter definitely have valuable social functions, and in some cases can even be used professionally or for some public good.  Discussing confidential medical information online, however, falls neither under “professional” nor “public good,” and should be more rigorously policed.

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