COMMENTARY

Is It Professional for Docs to Post Their Bathing Suit Photos?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

September 08, 2020

Editor's Note: The study in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, referred to in this article, has been retracted

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine.

Many of you would be horrified at the idea of me posting pictures of myself in a bathing suit out by the pool that's part of my house in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Who would want to look at that? I doubt there would be any social media attention to such aesthetic displays.

A big controversy broke out recently. The Journal of Vascular Surgery published an article about unprofessional conduct on social media by young doctors, particularly women, saying that they were posting inappropriate pictures.

The journal article basically said that it's unprofessional if we get pictures — and it was mainly targeted to females, I have to say — of women physicians who are in bikinis, drinking alcohol, or otherwise having a good time off duty. The article got such a pushback from angry physicians, and particularly from younger ones, that they had to retract the article, saying it was a mistake to publish it.

What is professional conduct, what do you have to do when you're on duty as a doctor, what do you have to do when you're not on duty, how might you be seen by others, and how should you portray yourself? — these are still important ethics questions.

I happen to come down on the side that says you should be professional when you're at work, watching how you dress and trying to appear neat and presentable to people. That still allows a range of appearance. I'm not sure that I think you always have to shave your beard, and I'm not even sure you always have to have a tie on. I think looking professional in your white coat is important for instilling confidence and building trust. Many patients care about that, and I think medicine has to be responsive.

On the other hand, I sympathize with doctors, particularly younger physicians, who say that when they're at home, out at a party, or going down to the shore, the beach, or the lake, as long as they are social distancing in the age of COVID-19 and perhaps wearing a mask, they can be good role models and professional. At the same time, they may wear bathing suits that are within the norm of what people are wearing for bathing suits for their age group. I don't find that offensive, unprofessional, or wrong.

I would find it unprofessional if you said, "Hey, come check out my picture in this skimpy bathing suit" or "Come see what a great physique I have." If you were trying somehow to promote your appearance and your patients could follow that or get wind of that, I don't think that's professional. That might require special pages or blocked pages if you're a weightlifter or a beauty contestant in your spare time.

Generally speaking, I don't think patients are going to be shocked to find out that doctors go to the beach. I don't think they're going to be surprised to find out that male doctors wear bathing suits and sit by the pool. Posting as a way to show friends and relatives what you're up to, even having a drink, I do not consider that unprofessional conduct.

It's a fine line. You want to make sure that if you're really trying to promote your appearance, gym equipment, or an exercise routine as part of being a doctor, your patients shouldn't be subjected to that. That gets to be promotional and commercial. I don't think that's professional.

When it's casual behavior and you're putting it up there and realize that your patients might see it, be careful — in the age of COVID-19 — about showing that you're still acting responsibly.

Remember, we used to have a strong professional ethic that said that you shouldn't let your patients know anything about what you're doing off duty. That's changed because of social media. If you're on it, it's very hard for a patient not to find it, so that shifted partly out of practical reality. You can't impose a kind of censorship, if you will, on your private life, which used to be possible maybe 30 years ago.

At the same time, physicians rightly say, "If you want a professional ethic, that's great, but my time is my time and I've started to protect that as if I were an employee or someone who worked for a healthcare system. You don't own what I do when I go home."

As long as you're making reasonable, sensible judgments about how you portray yourself, and you're not pushing a product or an idea that you have to look like this in order for me to like you, then I think it's okay to admit that there's recreational time — even for doctors and nurses.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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