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Some 13 per cent of US medical schools have reported that their students have leaked confidential information about patients via blogs or social networking websites.
The students didn't name names, but did provide enough personal information, such as the medical condition involved and hospital, for patients or their families to recognise who is being described.
The information was provided by medical school administrators as part of a survey into students' behaviour online.
That's a potential violation of patient confidentiality laws, says Katherine Chretien, a clinician-educator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington DC, who led the survey.
She suspects the training on confidentiality given to doctors needs to be updated to address the privacy risks presented by social networking and blogs.
Her team also documented unsavoury – but not necessarily illegal – web posts at 60 per cent of the 78 medical schools that participated, such as posting photos containing drug and alcohol use, or using profanity or risqué language.
While not illegal, this kind of behaviour is particularly problematic for doctors, as it can damage patients' trust and respect, Chretien says.
Preventing such behaviour may present medical schools with a bigger challenge than online privacy violations precisely because they are not against the law, says Lindsay Thompson, a paediatrician at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.
Thomson, who was not involved in the study, is drafting policies on student social networking and blogging.
"One's professional reputation is what I'm most concerned about," she says.