Students urged to adopt professional social media identities

Search Dental Tribune

Students urged to adopt professional social media identities for patient and faculty connections

Researchers in Finland and Malaysia have emphasised that e-professionalism is an important part of establishing professional dental practices and that it should be included in all undergraduate dental curricula. (Image: Marco Verch Professional Photographer, CC BY 2.0, no changes)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia/OULU, Finland: Online interaction with peers and patients has become an important part of running a dental clinic; however, the blurring of professional and personal boundaries in digital environments can result in ethical dilemmas for clinicians. Researchers in Malaysia and Finland examined the extending of friend requests among dental students, patients and faculty members in the two countries and found that the relatively new concept of “e-professionalism” is growing in importance.

The practice of connecting with or adding “friends” on social media—known as “friending”—is a common activity that can lead to pitfalls for health professionals. For example, patients increasingly connect with their healthcare providers via online channels, which can disrupt the work–life balance of clinicians and consume their time and energy. Conversely, careless social media activity by health professionals can violate privacy rights, expose personal details and risk the reputation and safety of clinicians. Since little is known about how dental students perceive the extending of friend requests to patients and faculty members, the researchers surveyed dental students enrolled at universities in Malaysia and Finland and compared the findings from the two study cohorts. 

Of the 643 students surveyed, 82.3% believed that guiding patients online is a new responsibility for dentists in the digital age. Students in Malaysia were more inclined to agree with this than Finnish students were (86.4% vs 73.4%), and this perception was significantly influenced by time spent by the students on social media and the importance that the students placed on communicating dental training issues. 

A total of 64 students had accepted friend requests from patients, and the proportion of Malaysian students who had done so was significantly higher than that of Finnish students (14.1% vs 1.0%). More than half (54.1%) of all participants had sent a friend request to a faculty member, and significantly more Malaysian students had done so (73.6% vs 11.8%). The practice was more common among younger students, those who spent more time on social media and those who placed greater emphasis on the importance of communication in relation to their dental studies. It was concluded that clinical-year students often friended patients on social media, that students overall were more inclined to friend faculty members and that those valuing dental communication were likelier to connect with faculty online. 

The researchers hypothesised that the significant variation in results between the two cohorts was due to sociocultural differences and differences in guidelines and laws relating to social media use and data protection. Dr Shani Ann Mani, associate professor in the Department of Paediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics at Universiti Malaya and co-author of the study, told Dental Tribune International (DTI) that the two Finnish dental schools included in the study did not offer a formal course on e-professionalism. She said that one of the two Malaysian dental schools included in the study offered an annual class on the topic in the third, fourth and fifth years of the curriculum. She added: “All schools dealt with social media use for the students either during the briefing for the course, in ethical instruction or in the form of guidelines; however, the topic was covered in a broad sense.” 

The researchers emphasised that e-professionalism is an important part of establishing professional dental practices and should be included in all undergraduate dental curricula. They wrote: “In a digital era, students should be prepared to develop a professional identity online to share professionally related content and to communicate with patients and faculty via [social media].” E-professionalism is recent concept and may not be explicitly taught in the curriculum of all dental schools, they added. 

Associate Prof. SA Mani told DTI that all dental students should be guided to have a professional social media account in the first year of their studies. “This account can be used to connect with patients or faculty, to share professional content and to discuss professional related matters with faculty, patients and peers within ethical boundaries,” she explained. 

The study, titled “Perceptions of professional social media interaction with patients and faculty members—a comparative survey among dental students from Malaysia and Finland”, was published online on 25 May 2023 in BMC Medical Education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *