A survey conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that as many as one-quarter of physicians reported being personally attacked on social media, and one-sixth of female physicians stated that they were sexually harassed online. The attacks often focused on the physicians’ religion, race, or medical recommendations.

The researchers conducted 1103 surveys, encompassing 464 US physicians (mean [SD] age 39.0 [8.6] years). Of these, 42.2% were male, 57.8% were female or nonbinary, 76.9% were White, 15.7% Asian, and 2.6% Black.

Surveys were sent to participants via traceable links on Twitter between February 6 and March 20, 2019. Respondents were asked to reply yes/no to 2 questions:

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  • Have you ever been personally targeted or attacked on social media?
  • Have you ever been sexually harassed on social media?

An optional text box was provided for additional elaboration on any such incidents.

Lead author Vineet Arora, MD, Assistant Dean for Scholarship and Discovery at the University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine, said that the study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but remains equally relevant now and, in fact, the problem may have worsened.

“Our study took place before COVID-19 because we were personally motivated to study this topic after seeing some physicians struggle with this and because of personal experience of the authors,” Dr Arora recounted.

“COVID-19 has likely made this worse because more physicians are online advocating for public health measures like masking and vaccination that have become increasingly politicized unfortunately,” said Dr Arora, who is also the Associate Chief Medical Officer for Clinical Learning Environment at the University of Chicago.

Types of Personal Attacks

Of the 108 physicians (23.3%) who reported being personally attacked, there were no significant differences between female and male physicians (24.2% vs 21.9%, P =.56).

The researchers divided personal attacks into 4 domains: advocacy, personal, work, and “other”. Of the respondents, 46 chose to elaborate on the types of attacks they received, describing “verbal abuse, death threats, contacting employers and certifying boards, and the sharing of personally identifying information on public forums.”

The most common reason for being attacked was advocacy, especially regarding vaccination, Dr Arora stated.

Sexual Harassment

There were notable differences between female and male physicians when it came to sexual harassment, which was experienced by women significantly more than by men (16.4% vs 1.5%, P <.001).

Eighteen respondents shared comments regarding their experiences of sexual harassment, including receiving sexually explicit messages and threats of assault (including a Black female physician who reported being threatened with rape from White supremacists, due to her civil rights advocacy).

“We worry this emotionally distressing environment will drive women physicians off social media, which has been well-documented as a helpful career-advancement tool,” lead author Tricia Pendergrast, a second-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a press release.

She noted that women in medicine “are already less likely to hold leadership positions or be first or last authors of research, so disproportionately abstaining from a platform used for collaboration and networking due to sexual harassment and personal attacks should be a cause for concern.”

This article originally appeared on MPR