A mixed methods analysis of the changes in use of social media by medical students and doctors
: implications for professionalism and training

  • Catherine M. Hennessy

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The personal and professional use of social media by health professionals continues to increase. Clarity on what is meant by social media professionalism, and how it is understood and develops is important for the education of all health professionals. The aim of this PhD project was to gain an understanding of how medical students and doctors use social media and how this use develops over time, based on Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, with a particular focus on the concepts of online identity and social media professionalism.

    Using an explanatory sequential mixed methods design, questionnaire data were collected from medical students in Years 1, 3, and 5, and from qualified doctors, regarding social media use. Follow up interviews were conducted on a sample from each participant group to further explore how participants changed their social media use in order to maintain professionalism standards.

    Year 1 students increased their use of Facebook since starting medical school in order to stay updated and informed about medical school activities. An increased use of WhatsApp was reported by Year 5 students and doctors to manage patient care. Students and doctors both reported that they would miss out if they did not use Facebook or WhatsApp (respectively), even though they received warnings from the medical school to be cautious with their use of social media.

    Students in all years reported adopting a cautious approach to using social media due to their awareness of the standards of professionalism expected of them entering into the medical profession. Year 5 students and doctors were more confident about the appropriateness of what to post, or not, and posted more openly on certain platforms (mostly Twitter) about medical and political topics. Observing how peers use social media and using “common sense” were used to gauge how to use social media professionally, rather than referring to the guidelines produced by governing bodies. Concerns over professionalism were expressed by students regarding the widespread use of WhatsApp by doctors to discuss patients. Qualified doctors believed that the fast and convenient means of communication that WhatsApp provides, outweighs any risks to professionalism standards, including the potential for breaching patient confidentiality.

    Facebook and WhatsApp are a vital part of how medical students and doctors communicate with colleagues in their working lives. Education on how to (rather than how not to) use social media as professionals is needed from medical schools and governing bodies.
    Date of AwardMar 2021
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorSusan Greener (Supervisor), Claire F. Smith (Supervisor), Gordon Ferns (Supervisor) & Denise Turner (Supervisor)

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