ADEA CCI Liaison Ledger

Educator Spotlight: Dr. Dieter J. Schönwetter

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By Debra Werrlein

When Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry (Dalhousie Dentistry) announced it had temporarily suspended 13 male dental students from clinical work for belonging to a misogynistic Facebook group, the scandal shook the dental education community. Dieter Schönwetter, Ph.D., Associate Dean Academic (acting) and Director of Educational Resources and Faculty Development at the University of Manitoba College of Dentistry (U of M COD), was among the many who recognized the need for immediate action. As an early adopter of social media and a teacher of practice management, he was well positioned to address this crisis with students when his dean came to him and asked him to get involved. 

Dr. Dieter J. Schönwetter
University of Manitoba College of Dentistry

At the time, Dr. Schönwetter explains, the practice management curriculum included topics such as ethics and professionalism, but nothing specific to social media. As the events at Dalhousie Dentistry unfolded, Dr. Schönwetter added a timely session on e-professionalism to his practice management classes for students at all stages of the program. The hope was to proactively intervene to help students avoid the kind of mistakes revealed at Dalhousie Dentistry. 

Dr. Schönwetter set four objectives for the session:

  • Identify the “perils and pearls” of Facebook.
  • Create a set of guiding principles for the professional use of Facebook.
  • Create an assessment tool for evaluating student and professional Facebook pages.
  • Teach students to apply these principles to ensure the professionalism of their own Facebook pages.

Dr. Schönwetter’s teaching style is aimed at letting students make discoveries rather than delivering preordained truths. He began his first session by introducing students to news coverage of the events at Dalhousie Dentistry. He then asked the class to work in small groups to look for online guidance about the use of social media by dental professionals. 

In the spring semester of 2015, students were only able to find one set of guidelines, a one-page outline posted by the American Medical Association (AMA). This generated frustration because the students felt they needed more direction from their professional associations.

To drive home the need for all health professionals to look carefully at their own social media profiles, Dr. Schönwetter took a bold step. He projected a slide displaying the names of everyone in the class hyperlinked to their Facebook pages and asked, “Since Facebook is public, I should be able to go on any of these Facebook pages right now, correct?” The reaction, Dr. Schönwetter explains, was one of dismay. When he started linking up to individual pages, many students pulled out their phones to try to block him. “It was a wonderful learning moment,” he says.

After the initial shock, Dr. Schönwetter asked his students what they could do to make their Facebook pages private. A few students raised their hands and were able to walk their classmates through the process of modifying their privacy settings. “I thought that was powerful because I didn’t have to do the teaching,” says Dr. Schönwetter. “They had the opportunity to identify who the experts were in the class and to learn best practices from them.” 

Dr. Schönwetter then asked the students to refer to the AMA guidelines on social media and to work in small groups to create a rubric with criteria for assessing Facebook pages. They used this rubric to evaluate the Facebook pages of private dental practices in Alberta and Ontario. They also evaluated each other’s Facebook pages.

In the process, Dr. Schönwetter explains, students learned to see Facebook postings in a new light. Use of social media asks young adults to balance complicated issues: their own privacy, the privacy of patients, and their burgeoning awareness and development of both a personal and a professional self. 

“They don’t know where the divide is,” says Dr. Schönwetter. “Because social media allows people to share anything with the world, we’ve lost the idea of what we should and shouldn’t share.” With discussion, exploration and the structure provided by their rubrics, students were able to see how things such as alcohol, scanty attire and provocative poses fall on the wrong side of the divide between what is professional and what isn’t. They also learned that the imperative to protect patient privacy extends to social media.

While these lessons clarified what constitutes professional behavior for students, they also created a sense of despair for some about what they’d already put online. In these cases Dr. Schönwetter says, “I ask them to think about what we can do now. If we have pictures that aren’t good, how can we flip it? Let’s put up a good picture.” 

This leads inevitably to the question of what makes a “good” or a professional picture. “I ask my students to tell me,” says Dr. Schönwetter. “I send them back to the AMA guidelines and general ethics. It would be easy for me to be prescriptive and lecture, but it’s more powerful to let them teach each other.”  

Dr. Schönwetter shared the rubrics his students created during his first e-professionalism sessions with the Manitoba Dental Association (MDA). Since they didn’t have a set of guidelines yet, he explains, this was a nice opportunity for the MDA to learn from the students. “It was a win-win situation for everybody,” he says.

Dr. Schönwetter continues to teach e-professionalism in his first-year practice management classes at U of M COD. He has also found an audience with established professionals, presenting at ADA last year and conducting a workshop at U of M COD for administrators and professors. 

In one instance, he inadvertently embarrassed a high-level administrator who thought certain information had been deleted from her Facebook account when it hadn’t. This incident highlighted the fact that social media constitutes new territory for the health professions, creating opportunities for mistakes by individuals at all levels of experience. “This is what happened with Dalhousie,” says Dr. Schönwetter. “We didn’t have rules; we didn’t have criteria, and people got hurt.” 

When asked if he would advocate for more policies from professional organizations like the MDA or from dental schools themselves, Dr. Schönwetter says yes, but cautions that “a school policy isn’t enough unless we make it part of the discipline process. To do that, we need clear criteria, we need a model, and we need to teach and encourage. A good policy is a step, but we also need the training to back it and clear role modeling by the administrators, faculty and staff.”

Lessons about social media use are important for everyone but, Dr. Schönwetter says, they are especially so for individuals in the health professions. Students are sometimes frustrated by what they perceive as a double standard.

“As health professionals, the public puts a high level of trust in us,” he explains. “We are paid more. We are trusted more. That means we have an obligation to give more.” 

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