Social media: Ethical and professional challenges

Policy topic

Social media can present ethical challenges for health professionals.

Conversations on Facebook and Twitter are often blurred between personal and professional lives. We interact with professional networks outside of office hours alongside chatting with family, friends and those in our social networks who share our personal interests. It’s easy to think of social media as your own private network, similar to a text messaging service. It’s important to remember it’s not.

So how should you present yourself on Facebook or Twitter? Should you be completely anonymous? Just use it as a non-work social tool for family and friends? Or should you be a fully signed up professional pharmacist tweeter, contributing to debates that may influence the future of the profession?


Tip one - Don’t hide behind a pseudonym

It is important to be open about your identity when using social media as a pharmacy professional. You wouldn’t send a letter without signing it, or strike up a conversation with someone without introducing yourself, so why would you tweet without letting others know who you are?

Choose a professional account name and a bio profile that identifies you as a pharmacy professional and be wary of engaging with anyone using social media anonymously. If a person feels the need to hide their identity how seriously can you take anything they choose to say?

There’s also no such thing as a totally anonymous social media account so those emboldened by the perception of anonymity be warned.

Tip two - Be outward looking

For professionals social media is essentially a networking tool. So make sure you use it to extend your networks. It may be comforting to interact with your peers and friends to chat about your mutual interests or concerns. However using social media outside of your ”echo-chamber”, where you are exposed  to people with different views, is one of the most exciting ways to use these tools.

Follow people and organisations on Twitter that you admire and respect. Always use hashtags (#) to ensure your posts reach new people beyond your own small number of followers. Join groups on LinkedIn and ‘like’ pages on Facebook to extend your access to information about clinical developments or career opportunities. Be open to experimenting with new social media tools such as Periscope and podcasting. Share your experiences with your networks too of course, but make reaching out beyond your own horizons your primary goal.

Tip three - Engaging with patients

When it comes to communicating with patients through social media, it is important to be aware of how to do so professionally.

I would always encourage pharmacists to be open to sharing their medicines knowledge through social media – with the one proviso that you do not give specific advice to individual patients. Signposting to authoritative advice, such as that on and where to access NHS services is absolutely fine. Offering a ‘virtual’ diagnosis via 140 characters on Twitter isn’t.

That aside though don’t be afraid to openly discuss and debate 'in general' topics related to your areas of specialism.

Pharmacists have a huge bank of expert knowledge to share with peers and the public. A good arena for doing this could be an organised Twitter chat on subjects such as good practice experience in the management of long term conditions, or known issues around medicine side effects.

Why not try out some chats that involve different health professionals or those run by patient support groups such as Diabetes UK. Just because providing clinical advice to individual patients is not recommended, it doesn’t mean you can’t share expertise in other ways. Just always be aware that your comments and contributions are in the public domain.

Tip four - Being polite costs nothing

… As my mum always says…..seems like common sense to say this but do think about how your social media posts will be received by others before hitting that ‘tweet’ or ‘post’ button. A bit like a driver of a car shouting at a pedestrian, the keyboard can depersonalise your interaction with other people. Challenge nonsense and offer sound scientific opinion, but remember it’s all too easy to be caught up in a heated debate where you may later regret some of the things you say. This temptation can be re-enforced by tweets being so short, forcing us to be economical in our choice of words. Please ensure that your economy cannot be construed as being overly curt or abrupt. And remember it’s OK to disagree with what other people say, just be mindful about how you express this.

If you are seeking help from others don't forget to thank them when they come to your aid. And if you discuss a third party in a tweet remember to include their @name so they are aware if it.

Remember, charm wins influence. Rudeness is unlikely to encourage others to include you in their networks. 

Tip five - Support your colleagues

If you are in a professional meeting and a colleague looks like they could use some support you would hopefully want to step in and help them out. If someone is new at work you might take some time for their induction. This etiquette can be applied to social media. Introduce new people to your networks using “follow Fridays” or by including them in conversations.

Use your experience to guide others through the sometimes ‘noisy’ discussions by promoting important views and comment. For advanced and heroic users, if you feel a conversation is getting a bit out of hand you could even drop a quick Direct Message and use your influence to try to calm things down (but be aware that your DM may appear in the next tweet!). Judgement, as always, is your best tool here.

You can of course also use social media to support campaigns and organisations you believe in, promote good causes and charitable giving, or recognise the good work of colleagues. In the end social media is just that – social – and as with face to face communications, you’ll probably reap what you sow.  

Is it advisable to voice your professional opinion publicly through social media? Is it OK to respond to someone who is or could be a patient? If so how should you handle this?

Sporadic  tweeter, LinkedIn user, Facebook conscientious objector, pharmacist and and Head of Corporate Communications at the RPS Neal Patel has provided the following tips for those who may be grappling with some of the more thorny ethical issues faced by pharmacists when using social media.

How should I use social media?

Neal Patel, Head of Corporate Communications at the RPS, shares how he thinks pharmacists can best use social media.