Background: Social networking site use is increasingly common among emerging medical professionals, with medical schools even reporting disciplinary student expulsion. Medical professionals who use social networking sites have unique responsibilities since their postings could violate patient privacy. However, it is unknown whether students and residents portray protected health information and under what circumstances or contexts.
Objective: The objective of our study was to document and describe online portrayals of potential patient privacy violations in the Facebook profiles of medical students and residents.
Methods: A multidisciplinary team performed two cross-sectional analyses at the University of Florida in 2007 and 2009 of all medical students and residents to see who had Facebook profiles. For each identified profile, we manually scanned the entire profile for any textual or photographic representations of protected health information, such as portrayals of people, names, dates, or descriptions of procedures.
Results: Almost half of all eligible students and residents had Facebook profiles (49.8%, or n=1023 out of 2053). There were 12 instances of potential patient violations, in which students and residents posted photographs of care they provided to individuals. No resident or student posted any identifiable patient information or likeness in text form. Each instance occurred in developing countries on apparent medical mission trips. These portrayals increased over time (1 in the 2007 cohort; 11 in 2009; P = .03). Medical students were more likely to have these potential violations on their profiles than residents (11 vs 1, P = .04), and there was no difference by gender. Photographs included trainees interacting with identifiable patients, all children, or performing medical examinations or procedures such as vaccinations of children.
Conclusions: While students and residents in this study are posting photographs that are potentially violations of patient privacy, they only seem to make this lapse in the setting of medical mission trips. Trainees need to learn to equate standards of patient privacy in all medical contexts using both legal and ethical arguments to maintain the highest professional principles. We propose three practical guidelines. First, there should be a legal resource for physicians traveling on medical mission trips such as an online list of local laws, or a telephone legal contact. Second, institutions that organize medical mission trips should plan an ethics seminar prior the departure on any trip since the legal and ethical implications may not be intuitive. Finally, at minimum, traveling physicians should apply the strictest legal precedent to any situation.