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5 social media etiquette tips for med students

Take these precautionary steps to protect your career — now, and in the future

Whether you're a medical student, a resident or in practice, social media has opened up a world of possibilities. You can use services like Twitter and Facebook to share and keep up to date on new medical research and healthcare news. You can communicate, organize and foster relationships with others in your field. You can also go online to unwind and de-stress after a long day.

But these benefits come with responsibilities—something that newly minted members of the medical community don't always consider. If you're not careful online, you risk breaching patient confidentiality, appearing to represent your school or faculty, or jeopardizing your burgeoning professional reputation—mistakes that could haunt you for years.

The good news: It's easy to avoid these mistakes, says Toronto medical resident Ian Brasg, who wrote The Canadian Federation of Medical Students Guide to Medical Professionalism: Recommendations for Social Media. Though social media platforms have evolved since the report's 2013 publication, the basic rules are the same. Brasg provides the following tips to protect yourself as well as the patients you deal with.

Don't play doctor: Developing your medical knowledge is exciting, and you may want to share what you've learned with friends and family. Keep in mind, however, that you still don't have a licence to practice—online or elsewhere. “In medicine, much like other fields, there's a tendency for students to misunderstand their level of expertise and assume they know more than they actually do," Brasg says.

When friends and family contact you on social media looking for health advice, it's important to explicitly remind them that you haven't graduated yet. As well, suggest shifting to a private means of communicating, like a phone call or email, since discussing personal health publicly is never a good idea. The bottom line: “[Social media] is not a secure forum to be talking about someone's personal health," Brasg says.

Protect patient confidentiality: Medical school offers great opportunities to get first-hand experience with patients under the supervision of licensed doctors. Tempting as it is to share details of these encounters on Facebook or Twitter, doing so is a serious breach of doctor-patient confidentiality. Even if you don't name patients, sharing information about their medical history or personal details is still a betrayal of trust. As Brasg points out, “Medical students are privy to intimate details and vulnerable moments in patients' lives, and that comes with a responsibility that is not just legal and regulatory, but also moral."

Separate your personal and professional online presences: Many experts recommend having two distinct online personas: a personal, private account for interacting with friends and family, and a professional one for interacting with the general public. This “dual-citizen" approach allows med students to grow their professional network while maintaining personal relationships on different social media accounts. Make sure to clearly distinguish the two accounts so others know which one to use to contact you. It's important to remember, though, that no online post is truly private, and comments made on either account could be seen by more than the intended audience.

Keep professional relationships professional: As you progress through medical school, your network will grow. You'll meet colleagues, patients, and experts in your specialty. Networking is great, but it's important to maintain a level of professionalism when interacting with these people online. It's best not to accept friend requests from former, current or future patients, for example, because you don't want to jeopardize the sensitive nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of accepting friend requests on your personal account, use them as an opportunity to redirect the patient to your professional social media account, like a LinkedIn profile.

Maintain academic integrity: Social media provides a great way for medical students to organize study sessions and have discussions about developments in medicine and health care. While these conversations are often informal, they should still respect the rules of academic integrity at your school. Handouts, lecture audio, images and other intellectual property should not be shared publicly on social media.

Likewise, be careful about appearing to represent your school or faculty when you share your opinions online. “When [students] provide quotes to the media and a school is attached to them," Brasg says, “the public may understand that to mean [they're] part of the faculty, and that their opinion carries more weight."

Social media has become a great way for medical students to enhance their education and advance their careers. But it takes discipline and a strong sense of responsibility to use social media properly—the same qualities, strangely enough, that will get you through years of medical training.