ADEA CCI Liaison Ledger

Campus Spotlight: The Ohio State University College of Dentistry

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By Janet Hulstrand

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The impetus to form a clear policy on digital professionalism at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry (OSU COD) began when Annette McMurry, J.D., took the position of Director of Admissions. 

“It was suggested to me that we should start looking at the social media pages of our applicants to find out how our applicants were presenting themselves there,” Ms. McMurry says. She expressed her reservations, pointing out that this could be a “slippery slope.” 

At that point in time, OSU COD did not have a social media policy. The dean suggested that Ms. McMurry explore the issue with Rachel Kearney, R.D.H., M.S., Associate Professor and Dental Hygiene Graduate Program Director. Prof. Kearney had a research interest in the topic and had published articles on social media in the Journal of Dental Education

“Some professional schools do review social media profiles in their admissions evaluations,” Prof. Kearney says, “but we felt that if we were to use social media in an admissions evaluation, we should have some internal expectations established first.” 

The two women began to meet, researched what other dental schools were doing in this area and started a working group to further explore the issue. “As we began to discuss digital professionalism, it became more and more apparent to us that we needed to develop a clear policy, so that our students, faculty and staff were aware of the expectations,” Prof. Kearney says. “When we talk about digital professionalism, we’re really just talking about the basic principles of professionalism within a digital environment. Sometimes our students, and even our faculty and staff, separate those two identities.”

Over the course of two years, Prof. Kearney and Ms. McMurry came up with a social media policy, which was implemented in 2014. Getting legal advice early on was especially helpful in shaping the language to meet both university and college standards. Prof. Kearney says their biggest challenge was explaining how the new policy differed from the student code of conduct already in place. 

“It was really a group effort across the college,” says Ms. McMurry. They put the first draft of the policy on their blog and made it available to everyone in the college community in an effort to encourage community-wide buy-in. “We allowed people to make comments through the blog site, and the majority of the feedback was positive,” Prof. Kearney reports. “Many respondents said they thought it was really good that attention was being drawn to this issue. Even our students—though some might think they would be the most resistant—are really interested in this conversation.” 

Now digital professionalism is introduced to OSU COD students in their first week, during orientation. “We want to start this conversation with them in the very beginning of their studies,” Prof. Kearney says. “We try to give really concrete examples of how things that you think are completely personal can show up in your professional life.” 

At the point in the curriculum just before students begin to spend more of their time devoted to patient care and clinical education, faculty explain how social media professionalism relates to patient care, emphasizing the importance of not violating patient privacy via social networks or through other digital channels.

Then, in a fourth-year practice management course, students are encouraged to consider how they will use social media in their future practices—whether they will have a Facebook page, what social media expectations they will have for their staff, who will manage social media for their practices, and so on. 

“This is where we start to come full circle,” Prof. Kearney says. “In the beginning, we’re just talking with them about issues of professionalism in their personal social media profiles. In the fourth year, we relate digital professionalism to how it will apply to them as they move forward in their careers.”

Ms. McMurry says that since she and Prof. Kearney presented on this topic at an ADEA meeting several years ago, they have been contacted by other schools that are developing social media policies. “I think it’s becoming more and more relevant to go outside of the general code of student conduct and have a social media policy in place,” she says. “Learning how to use social media as a professional is an important aspect of dental education today that can’t be ignored.”  

Prof. Kearney stresses that forming a social media policy is really just a first step. “I would hate for anyone to develop a policy and think that is the end. It’s really just the beginning of starting a conversation about digital professionalism with our students. We want them to be well-rounded professionals in all aspects of their lives, including their digital lives.”


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