December 3, 2022

Of bikinis and vascular surgeons

What is unprofessional conduct?

At a time when “cancel culture” is a good candidate for the 2020 Oxford Word of the Year, retractions of journal articles in science and medicine give readers a special frisson.

The Journal of Vascular Surgery is not a place where one would normally encounter controversy. But one article in the August issue struck a deep vein of discontent. “Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons” and an accompanying commentary have been retracted after outrage on Twitter and Facebook.

On the face of it, the article appeared innocuous. It found that amongst 480 young vascular surgeons, 235 had Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. Of these, 61 (26%) contained “unprofessional or potentially unprofessional content”. The authors’ message was that “Young surgeons should be aware of the permanent public exposure of unprofessional content that can be accessed by peers, patients, and current/future employers.”

What was the “unprofessional content”? To judge from the outrage on social media trending as #medbikini, it was skimpy swimwear. One tweet commented: “I am a woman in medicine who loves to travel to tropical locations and dress accordingly. I will not wear my white coat and scrubs to Hawaii. This does not make me unprofessional or less intelligent or compassionate compared to my male colleagues.”

In other words, the cause of the “sadness, anger and disappointment” for which the editors were forced to eat humble pie, was that the article had endorsed misogyny and sexism.

This seems like a bit of a stretch. While the article did mention that “Inappropriate attire included pictures in underwear, provocative Halloween costumes, and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear,” most of the content was deemed objectionable for other reasons:

holding/consuming alcohol (29 accounts, 12.3%), controversial political comments (22 accounts, 9.4%), inappropriate/offensive attire (9 accounts, 3.8%), censored profanity (8 accounts, 3.4%), controversial social topics (6 accounts, 2.5%), and controversial religious comments (2 accounts, .9%).

“Professionalism” has been identified as one of six core competencies in medical education. It appears that this vague concept might be increasingly difficult to define.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge 

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