To the Editor:
Since its launch in 1999, the Student Doctor Network (SDN),1 an online forum published by Coastal Research Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has helped tens of thousands of premeds and medical students become physicians.
In a recent letter to the editor, Jain and Maxson2 expressed concerns regarding online forums and specifically mentioned SDN. I am writing to make clear that when my colleagues and I founded SDN′s forums, we identified the issues raised by Jain and Maxson—professionalism, accuracy of information, and ethical standards—and established membership policies to address them. Our policies are constantly reviewed and refined.
* Professionalism. Students must understand that their online comments and personas can and will affect their careers and lives. SDN addresses this both through a required membership agreement and though articles such as “Keep your online persona clean!”3 Nevertheless, forum discussions naturally reflect the same banter students use among friends. However, when a discussion contains offensive language, attacks against other individuals, or use of hate speech, our volunteer moderators step in to correct such inappropriate behavior.
* Accuracy of information. Students can ask questions in our premedical forums and receive multiple answers within minutes. Students use forums to access the “wisdom of crowds,”4 supplementing information they collect from books, advisors, and other sites.
* Ethical standards. SDN has a team of over 100 volunteer moderators, who are held to the highest professional and moral standards. To protect the validity of standardized testing, SDN works closely with multiple national testing organizations to both discourage and actively remove content that could give future exam takers an unfair advantage. Further, we aggressively protect copyrights and respond to Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaints, often within minutes of being reported.
Through SDN, many applicants develop peer-support relationships and camaraderie not available elsewhere. This is especially important for students at schools without prehealth groups, and for nontraditional applicants.
We invite all interested readers, including medical school faculty and administrators, to become members of SDN and participate in our Academic Roundtable forum. This forum was specifically created to facilitate the discussion of the professionalism, ethics, and accuracy issues associated with the use of online forums.
Lee Burnett, DO
Executive director, Student Doctor Network,
Southern Pines, North Carolina;
4 Surowiecki J. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York, NY: Anchor; 2005.