A survey reveals that rape and death threats were among abusive messages sent to doctors on social media, while 1 in 6 female respondents reported receiving sexually harassing messages.
- A first-of-its-kind survey queried medical professionals who are active on social media about their experience of online abuse.
- The results indicate that 1 in 4 doctors have experienced “personal attacks.”
- Among female medical professionals, 1 in 6 report experiencing sexual harassment on social media.
The researchers behind the survey, which appears in JAMA Internal Medicine, have called on medical institutions to put plans in place to deal with online harassment of healthcare providers.
They conducted the survey via Twitter in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If anything, our data is likely an underestimate of the true extent of attacks and harassment post-pandemic, since so many doctors started to advocate for public health measures during the pandemic and been met with an increasingly polarized populace emboldened by leadership that devalues science and fact,” says senior author Vineet Arora, assistant dean for scholarship and discovery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, IL.
“Doctors and other healthcare workers are already facing unprecedented stress and mental health challenges from their work […] Any stress from being online will compound that and put them at risk, especially as doctors are being asked to be more vocal on social media to promote vaccination and more.”
– Vineet Arora
The authors believe this is the first study to address physicians’ experience of online harassment.
They sent the survey to participants via traceable links posted on Twitter. A total of 464 individuals identifying themselves as physicians in the United States completed the survey.
Respondents answered “yes” or “no” to two questions: Had they ever been personally targeted or attacked on social media, and had they ever been sexually harassed on social media.
They also had the option to describe any such incidents they experienced.
Respondents described receiving a barrage of negative reviews of their work, harassment and threats at their workplace — coordinated via social media, and having personal information about them shared online.
They described incidents of harassment on the basis of their religion, race, or the medical recommendations they made.
Overall, 1 in 4 respondents reported being attacked, sexually harassed, or both, on social media. Among female respondents, 1 in 6 stated they had received sexually harassing messages.
Some participants described receiving threats of rape and death.
“We worry this emotionally distressing environment will drive women physicians off social media, which has been well-documented as a helpful career-advancement tool,” says first author Tricia Pendergrast, a second-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.
“Women in medicine are already less likely to hold leadership positions or be first or last authors of research, so disproportionately abstaining from a platform used for collaboration and networking due to sexual harassment and personal attacks should be a cause for concern,” she adds.
Arora has co-founded a coalition of physicians and healthcare professionals in Illinois called the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team.
Part of its mission is to educate and advocate for evidence-based solutions on social media.
“It feels much easier to advocate on social media as part of a group,” she says. “The nice thing is that on #medtwitter, you are not alone. There are many who will come to your aid. And together, we not only have a louder voice, but we can support each other through this stressful time.”
In common with other online surveys, the research had some limitations. In particular, respondents were self-selecting, which could have biased the results.