Social media and e-professionalism: the future of medical education

ONLINE POST in English, commissioned | AMP Student 2017; 16

Of late, the use of online social networking sites has become ubiquitous in our society, being not only a virtually unavoidable arena for social interaction but also a part of students’ toolboxes1-7. Facebook is the most widely used social media platform5,7 (as of June 2017, it reports 1.32 billion daily active users worldwide8), a tendency that has spread amongst the medical students’ community, within which its use is highly prevalent2,3,5-7. That being said, it is pertinent to ask whether this popular social media site is playing an important role in twenty-first century medical education and, if so, how are medical students using Facebook to leverage their learning experience, a theme that has already became a hot topic of debate.

Previously published literature has demonstrated evidence of Facebook’s tools being used in the contemporary medical school setting as both an informal adjunct to traditional learning techniques and as a formal e-learning platform2,5. In a systematic review by Cheston and colleagues1, the dataset showed that the speed of access to information and the ease of communication provided by social media platforms allow for faster feedback, therefore increasing interactivity and learner engagement (as well as confidence and student satisfaction) – which in turn positively influenced learner outcomes, accordingly to several studies1,5.

In an article published recently in this subject, Anam Ali2 provides further evidence that medical students in the UK are using Facebook informally for educational purposes, as an unofficial support network. Indeed, this study highlights the use of Facebook as a vehicle for, among others, collaborative learning, assessment preparation, creating peer connections, and sharing educational resources, thus allowing students to enhance learning efficiency in a medical education course. As such, and judging by the supporting literature1,2,5, it could be concluded that innovative interventions using social media tools were shown to give rise to Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), student-designed learning approaches that can be tailored to the learner’s needs.

Despite the tangible strengths of social media in the digital education landscape, some authors pointed out a number of overarching ethical dilemmas over online professionalism, surrounding privacy and confidentiality – particularly with respect to Facebook –, meaning that the potential incorporation of social networking into medical educational programs remains controversial1,3,5,6,9. In this sense, MacDonald et al.9 discussed how the doctors’ online persona may impact the public’s perception: “it seems reasonable to assume that the public’s trust in the profession may be threatened by the knowledge that its members (…) proudly display the results of their drunkenness”, thus potentially reducing “the credibility of any counselling about ‘safe’ alcohol consumption”.

With all these thoughts in mind, it could be argued that restrictions on doctors’ use of social media could serve as a means of avoiding the conflict between their ‘digital identities’ and their (expected) professional attitudes. Nonetheless, given the growing social significance of these networks in the everyday lives of the ‘digital natives’, such does not seem a plausible measure3. On top of this, as Andrew Brown wrote3, “sites like Facebook might act as laboratories for social experiments” by assisting in creating communities of reflective practice, through which medical students can refine medico-legal issues of online behavior1,5 and so filling a gap in professionalism training.

Above all, harnessing social networks’ opportunities to enhance learning can be taken as one of the major challenges for medical institutions to embrace1,3-5. But it is equally clear that professionalism in the online environment should be considered in the planning of a learner-centered curriculum, thereby preparing this generation of millennial students for the appropriate use of social media during their developing professional lives3-7,9.

Referências bibliográficas:

  1. Cheston CC, Flickinger TE, Chisolm MS. Social media use in medical education: a systematic review. Acad Med. 2013;88(6):893-901.
  2. Ali A. Medical students’ use of Facebook for educational purposes. Perspect Med Educ. 2016;5(3):163-169.
  3. Brown AD. Social media: a new frontier in reflective practice. Med Educ. 2010;44(8):744-745.
  4. Sterling M, Leung P, Wright D, Bishop TF. The Use of Social Media in Graduate Medical Education: A Systematic Review. Acad Med. 2017;92(7):1043-1056.
  5. Whyte W, Hennessy C. Social Media use within medical education: A systematic review to develop a pilot questionnaire on how social media can be best used at BSMS MedEdPublish. 2017;6(2):21.
  6. Ross S, Lai K, Walton JM, Kirwan P, White JS. “I have the right to a private life”: medical students’ views about professionalism in a digital world. Med Teach. 2013;35(10):826-831.
  7. Brisson GE, Fisher MJ, LaBelle MW, Kozmic SE. Defining a mismatch: differences in usage of social networking sites between medical students and the faculty who teach them. Teach Learn Med. 2015;27(2):208-214.
  8. Facebook Reports Second Quarter 2017 Results2017.
  9. MacDonald J, Sohn S, Ellis P. Privacy, professionalism and Facebook: a dilemma for young doctors. Med Educ. 2010;44(8):805-813.


Diana Venda
Estudante de 3º ano do curso Mestrado Integrado em Medicina na NOVA Medical School | Faculdade de Ciências Médicas, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa