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#MedBikini: Here’s why health care professionals are posting photos of themselves in bathing suits

Authors apologize after uproar over study calling certain personal social media posts "potentially unprofessional."

Healthcare workers posted images of themselves on Twitter wearing bathing suits and sipping alcoholic beverages in response to a recent study.
Healthcare workers posted images of themselves on Twitter wearing bathing suits and sipping alcoholic beverages in response to a recent study.Twitter

A high dosage of health care professionals flooded social media Friday with a special hashtag and pictures of themselves wearing bikinis and bathing suits, lounging in pools, and sipping on margaritas after a study published in a medical journal that criticized such content as “potentially unprofessional” began circulating online.

“Warning: doctor having fun on a beach with her family. We’re not unprofessional, we’re human,” tweeted Dr. Jessica Flynn, a Boston-based sports medicine doctor, using the emerging hashtag #MedBikini.

A person who claimed to be a resident physician at a Boston hospital wrote, “Read the original paper being referenced by #MedBikini. Couldn’t believe the Methods section wasn’t pure satire. Guess we’re not allowed to be human if we’re in medicine.”

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Titled “Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons,” it appears in the August 2020 edition of the Journal of Vascular Surgery (and online in December). Six of the seven listed authors have ties to Boston Medical Center, including Dr. Alik Farber, chief of vascular and endovascular surgery at Boston Medical Center.

The clinical research study drew so much scrutiny that by Friday afternoon its authors had apologized and — in an extraordinary move — called for a retraction of their own work, according to a statement from BMC.

A spokesman said the paper was “ill-conceived, poorly executed, and reinforces biases about professionalism and gender” and doesn’t represent the values of the hospital.

“This paper highlights that we have so much more work to do to eliminate gender bias among our medical community, our training programs, and especially in the care we provide to our patients and the communities we serve,” the statement said.

In their paper, the authors wrote that they set out to “evaluate the extent of unprofessional social media content among recent vascular surgery fellows and residents” by sifting through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles using incognito accounts.

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The study concluded that “one-half of recent and soon-to-be graduating vascular surgery trainees had an identifiable social media account, with nearly one-quarter of these containing either clearly unprofessional or potentially unprofessional content.”

It described “potentially unprofessional content” as holding or drinking alcohol in photos; posting controversial political and religious comments or controversial social topics; and sharing images in “inappropriate attire” such as “underwear, provocative Halloween costumes, and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear.”

“Young surgeons should be aware of the permanent public exposure of unprofessional content that can be accessed by peers, patients, and current [and] future employers,” the authors wrote. They argue it could also be harmful to the institutions they work for or affect a patient’s hospital choice.

A graphic used to illustrate the study in the Journal of Vascular Surgery.
A graphic used to illustrate the study in the Journal of Vascular Surgery.Journal of Vascular Surgery

But a growing chorus of people who identified themselves as working in the medical field — both men and women — came out against the paper’s methodology and conclusions Friday, calling it misogynistic, demanding it be retracted, and spawning the hashtag #MedBikini.

Among the numerous pictures shared Friday were physicians, doctors, and nurses clad in two-piece bikinis and swimsuits, sitting in inflatable tubes in the pool or standing on the beach. Others were sipping or holding alcoholic beverages. Some did both.

“My body is my temple, and treating it as such sets a good example for my patients. Drinking a cocktail while on a well-deserved vacation is not unprofessional,” one reply to the study said.

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While many of the posts led to people sharing photos of themselves in bathing suits or out for drinks — combined with pithy responses — others rebuffed the idea that health care professionals should tamp down on sharing personal opinions about certain major public health issues, like gun control and abortion, which the study called “controversial social comments.”

“This paper is a perfect example of unconscious bias. By labeling things such as ‘provocative Halloween costumes,' ‘bikinis’ and opinions on abortion and gun control unprofessional, who do you think they are primarily targeting?” one person wrote.

Another doctor called the article “ridiculous.”

“I support #MedBikini, but more importantly I would also ask [the authors] to justify the suggestion that physicians shouldn’t speak out about abortion and gun control,” the person wrote.

Farber did not immediately return a request for comment. The Globe also reached out to the Journal of Vascular Surgery but did not receive a response.

But at least two of the study’s authors, including Dr. Jeff Siracuse, a vascular surgeon at BMC, apologized for the paper’s content on social media Friday.

Siracuse, in a series of tweets, said the intent was to “empower surgeons to be aware and then personally decide what may be easily available for our patients and colleagues to see about us“ online.

“This was clearly not the result,” Siracuse said in a thread. “We realize that the definition of professionalism is rapidly changing in medicine and that we need to support our trainees and surgeons as our society changes without the appearance of judgment.”

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Siracuse also admitted that the “design had the potential for significant gender bias, particularly with male authors assessing the appropriateness of women’s as well as men’s clothing,” but that the so-called “inappropriate attire” category that particularly rocked the medical world looked at both women and men in swimsuits.

“However, we were wrong not to have considered the inherent gender bias and have certainly learned from this experience,” he said. “We will do better in the future and teach others from our experience.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.