In an era of incessant tweets and Facebook posts, your online presence can be as private or ubiquitous as profile settings allow, but whether program directors will use this information to evaluate future residents or fellows remains unclear. Review recommendations from a peer and share your thoughts on the issue.

Trends in using social media to review applicants

It is estimated that 19-31 percent of collegiate admissions officers vet applicants through online searches, while nearly one-half of employers do so, according to an article from the Journal of Graduate Medical Education. But data is much sparser regarding fellowship and residency program admission. However, recent studies suggest that program directors are already using social media searches to evaluate candidates, according to the same article.

A survey of surgical program directors in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that 17 percent screened applicants by using social media networking sites, and 33 percent of that group gave lower rankings to applicants based on the online content they found. At the same time, the survey also found that more general Google searches among program directors in emergency medicine didn’t negatively or positively impact residency applicants.

Considering this conflicting data, applicants may not have to police every post online, but they “should certainly maintain discretion, secure their accounts from public view, and recognize that their online behavior may have important implications for clinical care, should their patients search for them on social media networks,” said Deva M. Wells, a fourth-year student at University of Washington School of Medicine.

Recommendations for program directors

In an article for the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, Wells outlines three potential policies for program directors to consider using social media for evaluation clues:

  • If you search social media, please let applicants know. Program practices of searching social media networks “should be explicitly publicized on programs’ websites in the interest of transparency and honesty,” Well said, noting that this information can help applicants be more cognizant of what they post.  
  • Supporting program staff should conduct social media searches. To prevent potential bias, program “searches should be performed by someone other than the program director—either randomly or on all applications at certain phases of the selection process, and queries should generate reports only on a standardized set of unequivocal offenses.” 
  • If you spot “red flags” on a program applicants’ social media, allow him or her to explain. Medical educators and program directors should be mindful that social media may reflect a snapshot of an applicant’s lifestyle but not their entire identity, especially considering people mature as they grow older and continue to share posts online. With this in mind, “when more dubious findings surface, programs might consider allowing applicants to explain the content during an interview,” Wells said.

Tell us: Do you agree with these recommendations? Should program directors evaluate residency applicants’ social media? If so, what should they look for? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on the AMA’s Residents and Fellows Facebook page.

Also review the AMA’s top tips for managing your online reputation and visit Reputation.com—the preferred provider of online reputation management services offered through the AMA MVP Program.

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