Editors of the journal eventually retracted the study—and issued an apology to anyone who was hurt by it.

By Claire Gillespie
July 27, 2020
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It’s reasonable to expect doctors to wear a white coat, scrubs, and sensible shoes when they’re on duty. Beyond that, their wardrobe should be entirely up to them—and a recently published study (and the medical journal it was featured in) is getting backlash for suggesting otherwise. 

The study, titled "Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons," was first published in December 2019, but caught the public's attention after being included in the August edition of the Journal of Vascular Surgery. Researchers—some from Boston University School of Medicine—looked at the social media accounts of 480 young vascular surgeons to determine whether their posts could be labeled as "blatantly unprofessional" or "potentially unprofessional" to a future patient searching for a doctor online. Of the accounts, 68% belonged to men, and 32% belonged to women; more than half of them could be publicly identified.

Some of the "unprofessional" examples of online content included photos of intoxicated doctors, insurance violations, and badmouthing a colleague or a hospital, along with politically controversial or religious posts. After finding that 26% of accounts had one of these two types of posts, the study concluded, "Young surgeons should be aware of the permanent public exposure of unprofessional content that can be accessed by peers, patients, and current/future employers." The article also pointed out "positive professional" posts, which included physicians sharing medical studies or job openings.

Of course, the study didn't go down well with health professionals—and many took to Twitter to share their annoyance, along with pictures of themselves in those "unprofessional" situations, including posing in swimwear and holding or drinking alcoholic beverages, alongside the hashtag "#Medbikini."

Vera Bajarias, a nephrologist in training in the Philippines, was one of those doctors who posted a photo of herself in a bikini in retaliation. "I can wear swimwear to the beach in my free time & be a competent & compassionate physician at work." In an interview with CNN, Bajarias said "the backlash should have erupted the minute this paper saw the light of day. As a female doctor, I'm incredibly aware of how sexist the medical world is. Unless women are regarded as equals, we cannot achieve full progress not just in medicine, but in any other field of occupation."

Going a step further, many medical professionals argued that the study specifically targeted women, though the study said neither men nor women were more likely to post unprofessional or potentially unprofessional content to their social media accounts. Trisha Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care at the University of Oxford in the UK, wrote alongside her bikini selfie, “To the 28 year old ‘researcher’ who says this is unprofessional for women doctors, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.” 

Several men—both doctors and husbands of female doctors—also pointed out sexism and stood up for the women in their lives. “My wife isn’t on twitter but she’s a fucking bad ass doctor, wife and mom and wears a bikini and drinks at the beach like a normal fucking human being. #MedBikini #fuckthepatriarchy," wrote Jacob Charles, a California man who posted a picture of his wife in a bikini on the beach.

Anthony Tucker, MD, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon in Florida also took to Twitter with his own swimsuit post. "Although no one will want to see this Dad bod here it is in full support of my female colleagues and this misogynistic study. Without my female mentor in medschool and the one in residency, I wouldn’t be the surgeon I am today. #MedBikini." Dr. Tucker, also interviewed by CNN went on to point out that "male physicians have behaved poorly for decades and with little grief. However, when a strong willed, confident, intelligent and very skilled woman does the same... they are given grief. I have seen it countless times."

Responding to the backlash, one of the study authors issued his own apology. "Our intent was to empower surgeons to be aware and then personally decide what may be easily available for patients and colleagues to see about us," Thomas Cheng, a medical student at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a thread on Twitter. "However, this was not the result... We are sorry that we made the young surgeons feel targeted and that we were judgmental."

The Journal of Vascular Surgery also issued a statement on Twitter in response to the public outcry, and ended up retracting the article. "Our decision was in line with the feedback we received from many of our readers, from members of the Society for Vascular Surgery and its leadership, and the [Association of Program Directors in Vascular Surgery]," wrote Peter Gloviczki, MD, and Peter F. Lawrence, MD, editors of the Journal of Vascular Surgery. "Finally, we offer an apology to every person who has communicated the sadness, anger, and disappointment caused by this article."

Some people praised the journal for taking responsibility. But only time will tell whether it goes far enough to prevent issues like this from happening in the future. 

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