Entering the pre-doctoral clinic in the 3rd year of dental school is a long awaited entry into a complex and intimidating new environment. For students who have spent the majority of their academic and professional lives without patient interaction, this may be the first opportunity to demonstrate clinical expertise and to begin developing vital patient management training. Thankfully, the majority of these experiences are heavily supported through close faculty supervision and extensive pre-clinical training. However, the responsibility for patient care is not able to be fully simulated and many challenges are present early and often in the pre-doctoral clinic.
Per accreditation standards for all dental schools, a student must demonstrate competency in the basic sciences, clinical practice, and medical standards. Students must also maintain high ethical and professional standards. A difficult subset of these standards, professionalism, has been made even trickier with the increased usage of social media, since many interactions that were once private are now public. Unfortunately, this new field is relatively un-researched and guidelines from all parenting organizations are continually changing with somewhat vague requirements for training and ethical standards.
For health professional students that were raised in the age of social media in the past decade, they have amassed a significant amount of experience on how to engage with friends and family in a personal manner, but not yet in a professional capacity. One’s wealth of messages, posts, and discussions are collectively referred to as their digital footprint. As is widely known, much of the information that is posted online can be referenced or found for a long period of time after it is made public. Students and educators are now faced with the task of researching how this information that is available on the internet will be interpreted by patients, and the effect it will have on the provider-patient relationship.
Secondary web services such as social media platforms or applications create unique areas for users to interact in a narrow or broad capacity. Some applications, such as LinkedIn, allow users to network professionally, while another commonly used application, Twitter, serves as a concise platform for users to share content and news. In addition, Yelp is a service where users can post and read reviews of commodities such as restaurants, hotels, or even a health professional. A foundation to the provider-patient relationship is the inherent trust that patients must have in their provider to not make their experiences public, and this is protected under privacy and confidentiality laws. However, there are important legal and ethical issues that complicate dentists from directly responding to online reviews.
The legal and ethical guidelines surrounding online professionalism are complicated further by the difficult separation of personal and professional actions as a health professional on social media. It is vital for students and dentists to review the guidelines regarding the Privacy and Confidentiality laws surrounding online patient interactions. There is current research into the development of these guidelines that will hopefully better detail what will be considered appropriate behaviors to safeguard patient confidentiality. The goal is to allow health professionals to ethically interact with the public on social media to disseminate information, market services, and foster relationships, but not cross boundaries. The opportunities available for health professionals on social media is an exciting new field. Young professionals must collaborate with educators to study the limitations and growth of this emerging field in dentistry.
Alec S. Eidelman
American Student Dental Association – District 1 Advocacy Chair