Defining the Digital Self: A Qualitative Study to Explore the Digital Component of Professional Identity in the Health Professions

J Med Internet Res. 2020 Sep 29;22(9):e21416. doi: 10.2196/21416.

Abstract

Background: Recent medical education literature pertaining to professional identity development fails to reflect the impact social media has on professional identity theory. Social media is transforming the field of medicine, as the web-based medium is now an avenue for professional development and socialization for medical students and residents. Research regarding identity development in social media has been primarily confined to electronic professionalism through best practice guidelines. However, this neglects other potential aspects pertinent to digital identity that have not yet been explored.

Objective: This study aims to define the properties and development of the digital self and its interactions with the current professional identity development theory.

Methods: A qualitative study was conducted using thematic analysis. A total of 17 participants who are social media education and knowledge translation experts were interviewed. The initial participants were from emergency medicine, and a snowball sampling method was used following their respective web-based semistructured interviews to enable global recruitment of other participants from interprofessional disciplines. The research team consisted of a diverse group of researchers including one current social media knowledge translation physician clinician educator, one postdoctoral researcher who is regularly engaged in social media knowledge translation, and 3 nonphysician research assistants who are not social media users. Half of the team conducted the initial coding and analysis, whereas the other 2 investigators audited the procedures followed.

Results: A total of 4 themes were identified that pertain to digital identity. In the first theme, origins of initial digital identity formation were found to be derived from perceived needs in professional roles (eg, as a medical student or resident). The second theme consisted of the cultivation of digital identity, in which digital identity was developed parallel to professional identity. The third theme that emerged was the management between the professional and personal components of digital identity. Participants initially preferred keeping these components completely separate; however, attempts to do so were inadequate while the integration of both components provided benefits. The fourth theme was the management of real-life identity and digital identity. Participants preferred real-life identity to be wholly represented on the web. Instances of misalignment resulted in identity conflict, compromising one of the identities.

Conclusions: Social media introduces new features to professional identity in the digital world. The formation of digital identity, its development, and reconciliation with other identities were features captured in our analysis. The virtual component of professional identity must not be neglected but instead further explored, as educational institutions continue to give more importance to navigating professional identity development.

Keywords: digital identity; e-professionalism; health care professionals; professional identity; social media.