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Pharmacy in the Age of Social Networking

Where Are the Boundaries?

Jun 02, 2010

Illustrated by Matt Sweitzer ©2010 ASHP

LIKE OTHER CLINICIANS, pharmacists use online social networking to maintain friendships, expand their professional relationships, and even keep in touch with patients. But as more and more clinicians try their hand at blogging or setting up profiles on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, professional and personal lines can become blurred. Maintaining the right balance requires finesse and ultimately depends on two things: your comfort level and your judgment.

If You Post It, You Publish It
The first thing to remember about social networking is that once you post something to a site, whether a blog, a bulletin board, a profile, or a page, it is published. That means that this content is fair game for viewers to judge as they see fit. Considering that your viewers may be colleagues, potential employers, or supervisors, you should always be judicious about whom you quote, the kinds of political and religious opinions you post, the types of photos you publish, and the language you use, according to Marni Lun, Pharm.D., M.B.A, director of ASHP’s Pharmacy Student Forum.

“Assume that people are going to Google you,” she said. “What is going to pop up first? Facebook? A blog? What does that say about you?”

Most social networks like Facebook allow users to adjust their privacy settings so that only friends or certain groups of people can see their pages. Although that is a useful feature, you can’t control how other people use the service, Lun added. “Check your friends’ pages and see what’s visible. When in doubt, be a tad more cautious than you otherwise would be with what you allow them to share about you.”

Greg Leatham, M.B.A., ASHP’s director of Web Communications, agrees. “Social networking is a great way to share information, learn new things, and make contacts with like-minded peers, but make sure you understand what is personal and what is professional,” he said.
“I caution people, especially students, who are often a little more free with what they put on their site, that it doesn’t matter where you plan to work,” said Leatham. “Human Resources is going to Google you as part of their recruiting process.”

The same goes for pharmacy directors, residency directors, division chairs, and other administrators who can influence your career and chances of future employment.

Pharmacy students are especially vulnerable to being their own worst enemy when it comes to online social networking. In a study published in the November 2009 issue of the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, researchers found that incoming first-year pharmacy students used Facebook in much the same way they did as undergraduates.

Jeff Cain, Ed.D., M.S.

“This showed us that a lot of students aren’t aware of the issues involved in using social networks once they get to a professional school,” said Jeff Cain, Ed.D., M.S., director of education technology at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in Lexington. “They’ve had Facebook for several years already and used it a certain way with their peers. They don’t realize that they’re no longer seen as a student but as a future professional.”

Cain, who has published widely on the issue and has presented at ASHP meetings about professionalism in the electronic age, believes that there is a disconnect between how Facebook was intended to be used—as a social hub—and how it may actually be used by some people—to gain insight into a person’s character, judgment, and professionalism.

Cain suggests that pharmacists ask themselves one question before posting anything online: Is it something you would want pharmacy faculty, your colleagues, or your patients to see?

Friendly Patients
Most online social networks allow members to connect as friends. With 400 million users on Facebook alone, sooner or later, you are bound to receive a friend request from a patient. How should you handle it?

“There’s an entire range of possible responses,” said Bill G. Felkey, M.S., professor emeritus of health care informatics at Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy in Auburn, Ala. “I have seen professionals who maintain a high level of professional distance. Others are very comfortable with including patients and look at it as a form of relationship building.”
Many professionals fall somewhere in the middle. “It’s a sticky situation,” said Cain. “It’s like a room. If patients come into that room, they’re coming into your social life. That’s a line that wasn’t crossed before.”

Many institutions are starting to enact professional policies regarding social networking and the requirements of “e-professionalism.” In the meantime, if you are not comfortable with “friending” patients, you can always deny the request. However, in the interest of diplomacy, you might wish to explain that you use your social networks for your family and close friends only. Better yet, if you have a professional site, point your patients to it.

Tools for Collaboration
Although it is wise to be cautious when using social networks, don’t be afraid to avail yourself of the opportunities they offer for collaboration. Some sites, like LinkedIn, have been designed solely for enhancing your career.

“LinkedIn is great for professional networking,” said Amy Baker, vice chair of ASHP’s Student Forum Executive Committee. “You can post your curriculum vitae and published papers there, link to your professional blogs, and integrate your Twitter tweets there.”

Cain noted that online social networks can help strengthen weak professional ties. “If you met someone at a conference,” he said, “you can reconnect when you get home and build from there. You can also find former classmates who are now colleagues.”

You can also branch out into video with a network like YouTube, Cain said. “YouTube can be very useful for education and training,” he said. “For the pharmacy classroom, you can learn or instruct someone in different techniques. It’s also valuable for public health education. For example, there are now videos that show patients how to use an asthma inhaler. YouTube is especially effective if you want to reach a broad audience.”

Baker, who is one of several contributors to the Society’s blog, ASHPConnect, added that writing about pharmacy practice in various social media benefits the entire field. “It’s great for projecting enthusiasm and advocating for pharmacy,” she said.

Regardless of which medium you use, Baker notes that if you approach it as you would approach colleagues directly, you can’t go wrong. “Put on your white coat, even if it’s only in your mind.” 

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