A social media background is an asset in medicine

I have a confession to make. Lately I’ve been doing some soul-searching regarding the future of my social media presence. It started at a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, where students and residents were cautioned to avoid public social media profiles and blogging. It came up again one morning while I was discussing some current events with other students, and was mentioned most recently at a professionalism talk that I attended. On each of these occurrences, I’ve found myself having to ferociously defend my position on the subject, only to receive the same, cautionary response, “Oh, I would just be careful..”

While difficult to convey in print, the overall tone of voice and demeanor that generally accompany this phrase are probably best described as ‘politely cynical.’ I don’t honestly know if my fellow medical students are that uninterested in social media by way of personal preference, or afraid of the repercussions that social media engagement may have on their budding careers. In either case, it is disheartening, and I respond with the same passionate explanation of my point of view.

That’s not to say that I also haven’t considered the consequences of choosing to maintain a public online presence, or that I haven’t been terrified by the prospect of being turned away on Match Day because my social media profile is viewed as a liability rather than an asset. However, it DOES mean I have been doing a lot more thinking about how I will one day tackle the issue of social media as I apply to residencies.

In college I decided to study communications because I liked to write and talk in front of people. I had always been the first to volunteer for class presentations and had done some high-school public speaking events, so I felt that studying communications would help make me a unique medical school applicant. As part of my graduation requirements, I put together a reader course with one of my professors to discuss different types of healthcare communications. We initially talked about topics like pharma advertising and small group and two-person didactic communication theories. One day the professor brought up the issue of patients receiving health information from websites, such as WebMD. That was my first experience with online medical information, and probably where my fascination with the relationship between health care and the media began.

With that said, the reasons I engage in social media reach far beyond a superficial compulsion to keep up-to-date with news and celebrity gossip. Through observation and practice, I have developed my own rules for participating both safely and ethically in online social spheres. I enjoy writing in general, and the fact that I maintain a blog and social media profiles has opened the door to multiple freelance writing positions, as well as valuable networking and mentorship opportunities. While I am not qualified to (and certainly would not) disseminate any medical advice, I do feel as though I am establishing the credibility I need to one day advocate for my patients, particularly in the media. As was pointed out in a recent KevinMD.com post, celebrities and politicians currently hold more sway when it comes to providing medical information and changing public opinion than do trained physicians. I’m not saying I want to be the next Dr. Oz, but my background in writing, social media, and communications will certainly help me more effectively reach out to my patients, my government and community leaders, and my colleagues, as well as help me become a more effective medical educator, should my career take me down that path.

I can’t honestly say that my very first social media profile was created with the goal of career enhancement in mind. However, at this point in my education, I feel as though my background in social media is more of an asset – regardless of where in medicine I end up – than a liability, and I am thus proud to say that I will not be deleting or hiding any of my profiles as I advance to the next stage of medical education. My sites and profiles may undergo a few face-lifts as I conform to the social media policies of whichever institutions I become affiliated with, but I am officially here to stay.

Allison A. Greco is a medical student who blogs at MD2B.

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