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Recent cases show pharmacists must be professional when posting online

David Reissner: The GPhC's guidance is short and unspecific

Lawyer David Reissner highlights recent cases where professionals have not taken care when expressing views online

Many of us use Twitter, Facebook, or post comments on articles we read online. However, the right of professionals to free speech is restricted.

When the High Court recently rejected the Pharmacists’ Defence Association’s (PDA) challenge to the General Pharmaceutical Council’s (GPhC) introduction of new professional standards, Mr Justice Singh, commenting on the obligation on pharmacy professionals, students and trainees to behave professionally at all times, said: “If a pharmacy professional engages in a racist tirade on Twitter, that may well shed light on how he or she might provide professional services to a person from an ethnic minority.”

In August last year, in an example of precisely what Mr Justice Singh had in mind, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal suspended a solicitor from practice because he had posted violently anti-Semitic comments on his Facebook page.

At the end of October, the High Court had to deal with a case that required careful consideration of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Felix Ngole was enrolled on a Sheffield University course leading to registration as a social worker. Mr Ngole is a committed and sincere Christian whose views are based on a strict reading of the Bible. He posted on his public Facebook page comments such as: “Homosexuality is a sin.”

Mr Ngole appeared before a university fitness-to-practise panel, and led it to believe that he would not refrain from posting comments about his beliefs in the future. The panel concluded that Mr Ngole failed to grasp the perspective of possibly vulnerable users of social services, who might feel judged by him.

It was concluded that this could undermine wider public confidence in the social work profession. The panel removed Mr Ngole from his course, and he was unable to pursue his chosen career. The High Court held that the university’s decision was lawful. The judge said:

“Students as well as registrants [are] squarely on notice to behave appropriately at all times, including the use of social media… [They have] a measure of personal responsibility…for…awareness that personal conduct in public – whether or not in a work-related environment – can have an impact on the perception of the profession.”

The GPhC’s guidance Demonstrating professionalism online is short and unspecific. It says: “Pharmacy professionals have the same responsibilities and obligations when interacting online as they do when interacting face-to-face.” Recent cases highlight the risks if pharmacists and other healthcare professionals do not take care when expressing, even sincerely held, views online.

David Reissner is a senior partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP

10 Comments

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

Strange that the GPhC has done very little about the one thing which endangers the public; extreme workplace pressure. But it will gladly attempt to come down on someone who uses a racial slur on twitter, which almost nobody will see anyway.

We live in a free country and have freedom of speech. The caveat being that you only have freedom of speech if you don't upset anyone with what you say.

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

Nice and simple way to get pharmacists struck off to increase profits. No need for old fashioned dispensing errors anymore. Just scan facebook and instagram and send them off to canary wharf for the final nail in the coffin from the wonderfully effective regulators.

CAPT FX, Locum pharmacist

Regulation should never ever be used as a means to suppress information or to prevent Professionals from expressing themselves. At the same Regulation should not be used to prevent Ethnic minorities from voicing their concerns in cases of Racial and any other forms of discrimination. The period after the referendum vote has seen this country go back to what it is known for worldwide. The level of Racism has reached unprecented levels and for me personally it looks like the use of the N**word in particular has been legalised. When this is done by colleagues you work with, enlightened people, this shows how bad the situation is. 

Political correctness says issues like this dont happen and Institutions use documents affirming tolerance and equality as an excuse. How do you deal with issues like this that you know will be institutionally suppressed. A colleague recently submitted a 55 page document to our Regulator sighting the truth we all know, yet those pages of conscientious preparation were answered by one sentence. A Regulator who claims to protect the public by doing nothing and pretending all is fine is more dangerous than a registrant who uses social media as a last resort to show the very same public that they are not being protected at all.

Community Pharmacy in particular is a moving time bomb and there will come a time when you can not just continue to hide the truth. Social media is a viable tool to make responsible authorities accountable. Pharmacy Owners in this country are not regulated and for us as Professionals there is no way I know of we can go to report the Shortcomings of our Regulator. And they are so many shortcomings its ghastly to contemplate how we can continue in this manner.

It is about the content a Professional writes on Social media and the intent. I am also sure any professional posting any content on social media will always be accorded the chance to justify and defend their actions. Professionals do hurt too when insulted and this should be considered. In my opinion there are more serious issues to consider now, Like regulating Pharmacy Owners and this story here is very peripheral 

Sunny Jim, Pharmacy Buyer

*This comment has been deleted to comply with C+D’s community principles*

M Yang, Community pharmacist

I partially agree the new standards. After all, I would be very uncomfortable if the doctor (or any other h/c professional) treating me were known to have sympathies or affiliation with a racist or far right group. I wouldn't be confident that he/she could remain objective.

Religious beliefs are less black and white. Some individuals may have more conservative views or an adherence to more literal or extreme interpretations of scripture, it's possible to be a practicing christian or muslim (or any religion) without it compromising your practice as a pharmacist as long as you're aware of what you're doing and police yourself. Pharmacists have always been required to provide advice suited to their competence and be able to signpost/refer when necessary. I see no problem for a religious pharmacist to signpost a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy to an abortion clinic since he/she is not the one carrying out the actual procedure, merely pointing the way. If you can't even do that, then you shouldn't be in healthcare.  

However, with regards to online activity every individual, no matter the occupation, needs to take care when posting anything online. Don't be surprised if racist or homophobic comments get you in trouble. For more pedestrain things, I think every pharmacist should be prepared to stand their ground and  challenge the regulatort if they genuinely feel they're being unfairly disciplined. We need to remember that the GPhC is not a court of law. There have been instances where they've overstepped the boundary and intruded on personal activities that're harmless.

Ben Merriman, Community pharmacist

Have said it before and shall no doubt say it again: if you wouldn't say it to your grandmother, don't say it to anyone, in person or online.

Anonymous Anonymous, Information Technology

What if your grandmother is a racist though?!

M Yang, Community pharmacist

Just keep her away from your ethnically diverse friends and you'll be fine.

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

Ethnically diverse, Is that the same as urban ?

Ben Merriman, Community pharmacist

Anyone have an email address for Sunny Jim? What about Kevin Peterson (sp) was right or Mesit (sp) Ozil?

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