One in four doctors experiences online attacks, new study finds

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  • Women doctors experience more online harassment than male doctors
  • Some doctors report receiving rape and death threats
  • Social media attacks add to mental health issues among doctors

Doctors report being sexually harassed and personally attacked on social media platforms on the basis of their religion or race, or because of medical recommendations, according to a new study.

The study by the Northwestern University and the University of Chicago conducted a first-of-its-kind online survey.

Women doctors face more attacks

The research, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, also found that women doctors are disproportionately affected by personal attacks and sexual harassment. One in six women doctors reported being sexually harassed on social media.

The study also found that women were more likely than men to report being harassed online and more than twice as likely to experience online sexual harassment. Some women were threatened with 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. 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," study author Tricia Pendergrast said in a press release.

Medical practitioners' mental health affected

The findings of the study found that one in four doctors who filled out the survey reported being personally attacked on social media, including being bombarded by negative reviews, receiving harassment and threats at work, and having their personal information shared publicly.

The online attacks on doctors negatively impact their mental health. To combat this, the authors say that there should be an online structure to support doctors so that their careers are protected. The study highlights the need for medical institutions to have a plan in place to respond to this type of online harassment so that medical practitioners' careers aren't negatively impacted in the long term.

"Doctors and other health care 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,” says corresponding author Dr Vineet Arora.

Arora also co-founded a coalition of physicians and healthcare professionals to diffuse online attacks and to help healthcare workers educate and advocate for evidence-based solutions on social media.

"It feels much easier to advocate on social media as part of a group. 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," says Arora.

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