We all know it's become ubiquitous: Social networking sites with various names and of different types have permeated many aspects of our lives. Some would even argue that they have generated unprecedented political changes throughout the world.
As medical school admissions becomes more competitive—it's already been announced that a record number of first-time applicants have applied for the entering class of 2012—what role could social networking play in medical school admissions and education?
Currently, it seems that schools are split in terms of what role social networking might play in the admissions process. The position schools are taking appears to be a microcosm of the more ideological divide that separates many medical schools; some medical schools are more traditional, while others are more adventurous in their dealings with new technologies.
Some schools have incorporated social networking into their admissions process, while others have done so for current students. Online (and even in person) social networking has changed the medical school admissions process in many ways.
[Consider your online persona before applying to med school.]
• Admissions updates: A growing number of medical schools are using popular social media websites to communicate with applicants.
The University of Michigan, for example, is using not only social media websites, but also in-person communication to enhance its interface with applicants. The school has begun hand-delivering certain acceptance letters and maintains application status updates via text messages and social media websites.
• Class cohesion: There have been reports that some schools have adopted social networking websites in order to enhance the cohesion of their incoming classes.
Mayo Medical School, for example, developed an incoming class orientation group on Facebook two years ago. Mayo not only concluded that its entry into social media was a success, but it also stated that it saved the school tens of thousands of dollars that otherwise would have been spent on traditional team-building orientation activities.
The school also stated that admitted applicants largely organized their own pre-orientation activities, building added class cohesion without requiring costly coordination from the school's staff.
Mayo also established a Center for Social Media to keep abreast of trends and developments in this rapidly evolving field.
[See how doctors are using social media to connect with patients.]
Social media has also had a large impact on the experience of current medical students. Because medical school classes tend to be small, schools have more resources to monitor current students than they do to communicate with the thousands of applicants each year.
A recent Medical Education Online study on social media policies among medical schools shows that many institutions do not yet have clear policies regarding these media. Among the potential problem areas are:
• Professionalism: There have been many accounts of medical students who posted pictures that might have been overlooked at an undergraduate institution—but not so at a professional school. Medical school is not generally regarded as the time to post pictures of parties or other social events on these public websites.
• Privacy: With the proliferation of social media, and its usage by the general public, engaging in this media can be a gray area for medical students.
A study by the University of Florida on its medical student body revealed that the vast majority of those with profiles on Facebook made their information available to the public. This study, along with the Medical Education Online survey, revealed that not only did some medical students blog about patient experiences, but some also included easily accessible personal contact information.
Medical schools appear to be in the process of establishing social media guidelines for students—particularly in the area of patient confidentiality. The literature on the subject appears to conclude that medical schools are increasingly including presence on social media in their codes of professional conduct.
With the rapidly evolving nature of social networking, and its potential role in medical school admissions and education, it is important to consider trends in how medical schools handle these developments when making career—and personal—decisions.
Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.