Medical Technology

Navigating Benefits, Pitfalls of Social Media as a Female Doctor

Social media is strewn with landmines for the unwary clinician, medical student, academic physician, administrator, or other medical professional. At the same time, it provides powerful opportunities for networking and collaborating with colleagues, keeping up with one’s field, and pursuing opportunities for professional development.

How to navigate social media is a topic especially germane to female physicians. A study this past May published in JAMA Network Open found that the same biases facing women in medicine elsewhere hinder them on social media. Women in medicine still need to “find their voices” on social media, but first, it seems, they need to come to terms with what social media is, whether they really need to be there, and how to engage safely and effectively.

As part of this year’s “Women in Medicine” (WIM) conference, hosted recently by the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, experts focused on how to utilize social media to amplify one’s voice, a key tenet of the event.


Dr Vineet Arora

Vineet Arora, MD, has feelings about social media that matches most of her peers. “I have mixed feelings about social media,” said Arora, recently appointed dean of medical education at the University of Chicago’s Biomedical Sciences Division. She mentioned the problems women have on social media, such as being attacked for their looks or receiving offensive messages for attention and bearing the brunt of negative comments and other harassment, online activity known as “trolling.”  Such negativity is more common on social media because “people’s filters are lower,” she said.

Arora made her comments as part of a discussion with Mark Shapiro, MD, a practicing physician and founder of the healthcare podcast Explore the Space. Shapiro is also winner of WIM’s 2021 #HeforShe award, an honor that recognizes men who have made significant contributions to improving the careers of women physicians.


Dr. Mark Shapiro

Still, responsible medical professionals are obligated to be on social media. This is not easy, but neither is it optional, says Arora. “We do need to engage, even though it’s not all rosy all the time,” she said, adding that these days social media is where many if not most people get their news, and that news is not always accurate or even safe. To avoid the space, she said, is to abandon those who need accurate, responsible information and relinquish it to those who use social media for ill.

Being on social media is also a career necessity, she asserts. “To just opt out of that entire tool set that has engaged 5 billion-plus people around the world…is doing your career a disservice,” she said. Arora added that physicians “have to build your brand,” and these days social media is the cornerstone of brand building. In addition, Arora and Shapiro agreed that, increasingly, a job candidate’s social media following is taken into consideration when hiring and can be a powerful tool when negotiating contracts.

Finding Your Place

There is no one right way, nor required way, to engage on social media.

Arora and Shapiro both pointed out that being there — at least at first — doesn’t have to mean engaging. “Lurking” by signing up for an account but not posting anything is a safe way to get the feel of the space and decide how you want to present yourself there. They also discussed strategies for avoiding the worst of social media, for example, simply not responding to provocations and blocking trolls and troublemakers.

Arora recommended choosing the particular platform or platforms that meet your needs and goals and using them in the way that is most comfortable and workable for you. You have to be on social media, she feels, but added that you don’t have to be on all the platforms. Arora uses Twitter and Instagram mostly. But not all platforms have to be used in the same way. For her, Instagram is a place for ‘de-stressing.’ She follows accounts that feature relaxing, nonpolitical imagery. Facebook is for keeping up with friends and family.

In addition, both physicians offered this caution: When you’re on social media you are not speaking officially for your institution, but you are representing it. But Shapiro pointed out that this works both ways. When an employee of a university or medical center is on a widely-viewed media outlet, that person should be compensated. Using UCLA as an example (Shapiro doesn’t work at UCLA) he said, “If I’m going to have UCLA on my CNN chyron or on my jacket when I’m on a YouTube channel that has two million views a month, that should be compensated; I should get credit for that.”

Arora and Shapiro agreed that the ethics surrounding the intersection of personal interests and comments and professional ones — and particularly around the role of sponsorships — still need to be worked out.

To find their voices on social media, women in medicine face the same challenges of avoiding harassment and bias that they do in other facets of life. But Arora advised women to think strategically about which voices they amplify because they can use social media to amplify diverse voices. “You’ve got a lot of agency and power on social media,” she said. “Don’t ever discount your power.”

Avery Hurt is a freelance science and medical writer.

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