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How can pharmacists avoid the pitfalls of social media?

You may have to tread a fine line when posting online

Social media has become firmly embedded into everyday life. Like any powerful tool, it can be useful – and it can also be dangerous. No one wants to find their pharmacy on the front page of the newspapers after posting hasty comments about a customer, or to be targeted by abusive trolls. So how do you get the most out of social media while minimising the risks?

Public space

First, never forget that social media is a public space. No matter what privacy settings you put on your account, anything you post online is liable to find its way into the public domain.

And those posts can result in guilt and anguish. In April 2015, a C+D poll revealed more than a quarter of pharmacists had written something they regretted on social media.

Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) head of communications Neal Patel says: “If you’re on social media, consider yourself to be shouting into a crowded room. If you’re happy to shout whatever you’re going to post on Twitter or LinkedIn to people you don’t know, then feel free to post it. If you have to think twice, then maybe don’t post.”

Everyone has a life outside of the pharmacy, but whether or not you’re posting in your professional capacity, patients expect certain standards from healthcare professionals. “Never forget you’re a professional, even if it’s your private account,” warns Leyla Hannbeck, chief pharmacist of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA). “If you have a rant, what sort of consequences will that have?”

Patient confidentiality is, of course, crucial. Earlier this month, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) launched a consultation on new standards for the profession, which include a clause that pharmacists must “maintain confidentiality when using websites, internet chat forums and social media”.

A GPhC spokesperson says: “Our standards make it clear that pharmacy professionals must use their professional judgement. This includes respecting and maintaining the privacy of patients at all times.”

Mr Patel stresses that the difference for healthcare professionals is that they hold a licence to practise – and it can be revoked. He says pharmacists need to be sure any general health advice they post online is accurate and evidence-based, and warns they should generally avoid giving personal advice online.

To this end, pharmacists should always maintain a professional manner, which includes appropriate use of language. It’s worth remembering the example of Charles Shanks. The Edinburgh pharmacist’s obscenity-laden rant on Facebook last year – in which he referred to a patient as a “total retard” – resulted in an investigation by the GPhC and the local health board. It serves as a stark warning about the dangers of venting frustrations in public.

Professional connections

Given the dangers, what reasons are there to engage with social media? Grassroots pharmacists can be at risk of professional isolation, especially in rural areas, and so social media provides an opportunity to connect and chat to like-minded colleagues, says RPS fellow and prolific Twitter user Mohammed Hussain.

“It’s a great way to build a network and connect with people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet, because they’re in a different geography or career path than you, or a different sector,” he says. “You can make a connection built on common interests, ideas and experiences, rather than limiting your connections to just where you live or your social circle.”

Mr Hussain likes the way social media can “flatten” the world, meaning you can directly contact anyone with a social media profile. “I’ve had conversations with top people in organisations – normally, I would never meet them.”

James Andrews, a pharmacist working in general practice and lead co-ordinator for the WePharmacists Twitter community, says he’s gained professional opportunities through using the network. “I did a CPD article on falls prevention because someone saw I’d been tweeting about it; and also consultancy work on social media for pharmacists. That’s two opportunities that I would never have got if it hadn’t been for Twitter,” he says.

He sees social media as “a space where people with the same mentality come together so they can bounce ideas and thoughts off each other”.

The WePharmacists community is “a bunch of like-minded people who value having discussions, and sharing information and materials with each other”, says Mr Andrews. The group uses the hashtag #weph to tag conversations, questions, and share views and information. They schedule Twitter chats on specific subjects, including one about how to have difficult conversations online.

Rapid response

Social media networks also enable you to reach a wide audience very quickly, says Mandeep Mudhar, director of marketing at Numark. “Depending on your network of connections, and how many people will share or retweet, it has the potential of exploding and becoming a major piece of information or news.” This makes social media perfect for launching campaigns.

Ms Hannbeck says the NPA has seen the advantage of this with its campaign against the government’s proposed cuts to pharmacy funding in England. “We’ve seen the positive side in terms of spreading the word, getting everyone engaged, and getting passionate about pharmacy. It’s a great platform if you want to reach audiences quickly.”

Twitter was also the platform for the #pharmacy24 campaign (see below), which originated as an idea by Mr Hussain and colleagues that was taken up by the WePharmacists group. It demonstrated an incredible reach, with more than 20 million people viewing tweets sent during a 24-hour campaign to promote the sector’s value.

Of course, Twitter isn’t the only way to build a network on social media. Mr Mudhar says having a Facebook page enables community pharmacies to run health promotion campaigns, disseminate healthy living advice and information about their services, and promote in-store events. But, he adds: “There needs to be an incentive – you’ve got the message out, but are you doing anything to draw people to the pharmacy? There needs to be a business link to it,” he says.

He also advocates the use of professional network LinkedIn, which can put you directly in touch with your peers.

Negative reactions

It sounds straightforward, but pharmacists are often worried about reaping the benefits, without getting drawn into undignified arguments or finding themselves a target for internet trolls.

To help, the RPS has a toolkit of information and advice about social media for pharmacists. “The reason we put the toolkit together is to give people the confidence that [social media] is a tool that can be used safely,” says Mr Patel.

If you’re nervous, you can start just by creating a profile and watching what happens on a platform, before you get actively involved.

However, when you feel ready to broadcast your opinions, it can lead to negative reactions, says Mr Mudhar. “You have to accept [criticism] on social media. If someone doesn’t like what you are putting out there, they will comment.”

He says responding too fast can escalate a situation. “If you respond negatively or in a defensive way, that’s worse. You can put an informed comment back, but the biggest pitfall is reacting badly to comments.”

Mr Andrews says you have to judge whether to respond or not, based on the individual circumstances. “There are examples where you feel comfortable to respond by saying they’ve misunderstood. [But] you need to be aware that things can escalate on Twitter. The other approach is to ignore it and block them, if they are completely offensive, and I have done that in the past.”

He adds that unpleasant situations are rare within the WePharmacists community because the members self-regulate to maintain a professional environment.

Trolls can be a problem, agrees Mr Hussain. “Being in a public forum makes you vulnerable. I’ve had experiences with trolls. You can come across people who will have a strong negative reaction, people who want to attack you for some reason. I either block people or mute them.”

Pharmacy owners and managers need to ensure that staff understand what is expected of their social media behaviour, says Ms Hannbeck: “In this day and age, all businesses are required to have a social media policy in place. The more explicit they are in terms of do’s and don’ts, the better.”

So do the benefits of social media outweigh the harms? Definitely, say the fans. Mr Hussain points out that “nobody is going to uninvent social media” and those who refuse to engage are losing out. “If we don’t use social media in our professional lives, we’re missing out on opportunities to connect and learn.”

Mr Andrews sums up the benefits: “It’s a really valuable tool and an opportunity to network in a broader sense. If people aren’t involved, it’s something they should think about, even if they’re just watching and learning. It’s worth getting involved – despite the pitfalls.”


The #pharmacy24 Twitter chat

What was it? For 24 hours on Thursday March 24, 2016, people working in pharmacy tweeted photos of themselves and talked about their work, using the hashtag #pharmacy24.

Who took part? Key organisations, including the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society; large pharmacy chains through to small independents; and people working in acute care and general practice. The hashtag was also used by people working in pharmacy outside the UK. More than 1,300 people posted some 10,000 tweets using the hashtag.

Who organised it? Mohammed Hussain and colleagues came up with the original idea in 2015. “We wanted to do something to enable pharmacy to shout about what we do, what we’re passionate about, and why we went into pharmacy. We came up with the idea that for 24 hours pharmacy professionals would tweet about what they’re doing, what they’re happy about and what a difference they’re making to their patients.” They teamed up with James Andrews and the WePharmacists group to get the project off the ground. What impact did it have? The #pharmacy24 initiative was the most-discussed topic on Twitter in the UK all day, and achieved 20 million views. You can see the outcome here.


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