Nearly one quarter of physicians who responded to an online survey reported that they had been harassed on social media, according to a study published online January 4 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Women were more likely than men to be attacked online, and were twice as likely to experience online sexual harassment, the researchers report.
The coauthors of the study include Vineet Arora, MD, a professor of medicine and associate chief medical officer at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine; Tricia Pendergrast, a second-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; Shikha Jain, MD, of the University of Illinois Chicago; N. Seth Trueger, MD, of the Feinberg School of Medicine and digital media editor of JAMA Network Open; Michael Gottlieb, MD, of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago; and Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD, of the Women’s Health Research Institute of the Feinberg School of Medicine.
A total of 464 participants who self-identified as US physicians completed the online survey. Of those respondents, 196 (42.2%) identify as male, 357 (76.9%) are White, 73 (15.7%) are Asian, and 12 (2.6%) are Black.
Overall, 108 (23.3%) reported that they’d been personally attacked on social media, with harassment slightly more common among women than men (24.2% vs 21.9%). Forty-four women (16.4%) and three men (1.5%) reported online sexual harassment, report the authors.
Forty-six respondents contributed information about the nature of the harassment they encountered on social media. Most of the personal attacks fell into one of four domains: advocacy (21), personal (7), work-related (5,) and other (13). Advocacy-related attacks included responses to physicians’ online comments about vaccines (10), guns (3), abortion (2), smoking (2) and other issues (4). Work-related attacks were related to patient care (4) and personal information (1). Some personal attacks referred to the physician’s race (4) or religion (3).
Physicians reported verbal abuse, death threats, threats to contact employers and certifying boards, and the sharing of personally identifying information on public forums.
Respondents shared 18 comments about sexual harassment. Of those, 12 women reported receiving sexually explicit messages, including several who received pornographic images. Two physicians described threats of assault, including a Black doctor who reported that White supremacists threatened her with rape because of her civil rights advocacy.
The researchers said that their study was not representative of the physician workforce because so few minority physicians were included. In addition, the median age of respondents was 39, which is lower than the median age of US doctors in general.
In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Arora noted that physician users of social media tend to be younger than doctors overall. However, she said, this study was of social media users, not the entire physician population.
The survey respondents, she said, mainly used Twitter and other social media sites as physicians, not as anonymous individuals. However, many of the people attacking them online used anonymous accounts, she said.
Asked whether physicians were attacked on their personal or professional social media accounts, she said it’s difficult to distinguish between the two on media like Twitter and Instagram, although some doctors may have personal and professional Facebook pages. She said this was a bigger issue when social media was a new concept.
Turned Off by Social Media
Some physicians still feel strongly about keeping their personal and professional social media identities separate. Medhavi Jogi, MD, a Houston endocrinologist, told Medscape Medical News that he advises the other physicians in his group not to “put anything out there that represents you as a physician, because you’re representing the group and putting u