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Regulators

GPhC’s social media guidance for pharmacists has ‘gone too far’, warns PDA

Guidance from the General Pharmaceutical Council on appropriate use of social media has been criticised for preventing freedom of speech and stifling debate.

Mark Pitt, director of defence services at the PDA

Source: PDA

Mark Pitt, director of defence services at the PDA, says the GPhC has gone too far by being prescriptive about the type of discussions that it considers unsuitable

The Pharmacists Defence Association (PDA) and other pharmacy leaders have expressed concern about new guidance published by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) on what is expected of pharmacy professionals when using social media.

The guidance, published on 15 July 2016, contains a list of dos and don’ts when using social media, including “don’t post inappropriate comments” and “don’t get drawn into negative, unconstructive discussions.”

Mark Pitt, director of defence services at the PDA, said pharmacists and students should be mindful of what they are posting and the way it could be viewed by others, but the GPhC has “gone too far by being prescriptive about the type of discussions that it considers unsuitable”.

“Such guidance may well increase the number of vexatious complainants to the GPhC and could be in conflict with the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” he says.

The PDA has expressed some reservations about the guidance, particularly the stipulation about pharmacists getting drawn into negative, unconstructive discussions.

“The PDA has already seen complaints to the regulator about social media posts, which seem to be more motivated by personal animosity or settling scores against a registrant, rather than genuine professional concerns,” says Pitt. “Individuals have the right to hold and express views with which others may not agree.”

According to the PDA, it has already seen GPhC social media cases reach double figures over the past 12 months. “In addition we routinely advise on student fitness to practice social media cases and employment disputes involving social media. Employers frequently refer to regulatory standards as part of these allegations,” says Pitt.

Sid Dajani, immediate past treasurer of Royal Pharmaceutical Society and a member of the English Pharmacy Board

Source: Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Sid Dajani, a member of the English Pharmacy Board, says if we over-police or regulate too heavily, we turn pharmacists into semi-robotic beings with no opinions and that would be detrimental to individuals and the profession

Sid Dajani, immediate past treasurer of Royal Pharmaceutical Society and a member of the English Pharmacy Board, also expressed strong views about the guidance.

“We shouldn’t stifle cutting edge debate or discourage heated discussions because passion sometimes drives professionals to progress and drive innovation. Some may see exchanges as negative, however, others will see it as communication,” he says.

Dajani is worried that if “we over-police or regulate too heavily, we turn pharmacists into semi-robotic beings with no opinions and that would be detrimental to individuals and the profession”.

“As a profession we have to fight apathy, be less shy or retiring and not be afraid to stir debate, stand our ground, strongly support members and face controversy where we need to,” he says.

“We all have something to say and we should all be equal in expressing our views within reason so I’d hate to see the GPhC push us into a secret police state where freedom of speech and views are suppressed if they decide to set their barometer to over-sensitive.”

Anthony Cox, a former English National Board member, was also critical of the guidance, describing it as “too vague and open to interpretation”.

“We don’t know what the GPhC’s threshold is on ‘negative unconstructive discussions’ or what is considered an ‘inappropriate comment’ and therefore pharmacists could be subject to vexatious complaints or be exposing themselves to an unknown risk without the information to enable them to avoid complaints,” he says.

Cox is concerned that the guidance could put some pharmacists’ careers at risk if they make critical social media posts against politicians.

“For instance, if pharmacists make negative social media comments about Jeremy Hunt, or even about RPS governance, or the pharmacy cuts, will they be up before a fitness to practise panel? This guidance could be used as a threat; it is a can of worms.”

Cox believes the profession needs clearer guidance from the GPhC on using social media and that it should focus on risks to patients. “As a regulator, I’m not sure the focus should be on policing the free speech of individuals, except where they undermine patient confidentiality or have been found to have broken the law,” he adds.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2016.20201471

Readers' comments (10)

  • Darren Powell

    So we have the guidance going too far, being prescriptive, stifling debate but also too vague and open to interpretation.

    How does the GPhC "square the circle" on this one?

    I think it is all in the eye of the beholder, judging from the comments .

    My own interpretation was "be nice, be professional" and remember that as a "registrant" I have a duty upon me to act in this fashion whether it be a face to face interaction, or a social media interaction.
    Now some pharmacists and techs may not like the implication that one's "personal life" may affect their professional one - but that's the "burden" we carry as a profession.

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  • The GPhC guidance has to be read with the RPS guide on social media. Further, I would suggest that anybody who is concerned about "social media and being a registrant" should look at the RCGP's guidance.

    All the guidance is saying is be sensible. Mr Powell hits the spot when he stated: "Now some pharmacists and techs may not like the implication that one's "personal life" may affect their professional one - but that's the "burden" we carry as a profession." Now, putting this in another context, you could live by the following rule:

    "If you are not prepared to stand up in a room full of strangers and say what you are going to say, do not put it on social media."

    The concern, as I see it, is that registrants try and draw a line between professional and personal lives, often compartmentalising the two, or trying to at least. This does not work and in one case I can think of, the GPhC FtP panel stated that a registrant had tried to do this. As a registrant, whatever you do in your personal life will often affect your professional life and vice versa. Put it another way, if a healthcare professional was disparaging about you on social media and you found out that they were a regulated healthcare professional, how would you feel?

    As for infringing on freedom of expression, as per Article 10 of Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998, providing you do not fall foul of the criminal law i.e. harassment, breaching the Communications Act, committing or causing a crime to be committed etc etc (you get the drift of this) then again you will be fine. Remember, Article 10 has restrictions placed upon it and it is not a "given right" so you cannot just say what you want and expect that nothing will happen.

    The reason for the "vagueness" of the GPhC guidance is so that they can interpret it on a case by case business. If you said something, the GPhC investigated and during the investigation you stuck the proverbial two fingers up to the GPhC then expect them to have a chat with you. The Council are often portrayed in a negative way by others so as to instil fear into registrants. Although I often represent registrants at the GPhC, they Council are fair and remember, the Council are there to protect the public. The RPS are there to promote the profession.

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  • Paul and Darren,

    Your posts are sensible and rational. Speaking as someone who teaches first week, first year MPharm students about the dangers of social media and someone who has been on social media on one form or another since 1998 (the old newsgroups) I find much to agree with.

    However, until you have suffered or seen the type of bullying that this vague guidance potentially enables, it is hard to really understand the issues. The risk of vexatious claims by people of bad faith is extremely high. Material that might get investigated and found unprofessional might in fact seem fairly innocuous to a lay member of the public.

    In the case of fellow professionals stalking individuals to bring vexatious complaints, they are themselves acting unprofessionally.

    I'm sure both of you would agree that the GPhC should be focused on the safety and professionalism of pharmacists, and not be a bullies court for individuals to settle personal or political scores.

    Aside from the waste of public funds, even an investigation by the GPhC can have consequences for individuals. The threshold for unprofessional speech and opinion should be reasonably high and made more clear to registrants to enable them to manage the risks of social media. Reference to the RPS advice, to which I contributed, are sensible, but does not help registrants avoid potentially career threatening allegations if the threshold is unknown.

    Negative discussion, for example, is subjective that it is essentially meaningless. The guidance therefore would be better leaving it out, rather than providing a potential reason for reporting a fellow professional to the GPhC, after all the regulator has deemed it a don't.

    Anthony

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  • "If you are not prepared to stand up in a room full of strangers and say what you are going to say, do not put it on social media."

    The Ben Merriman guidnce is very similar: If you don't want your grandmother to see it, don't post it. You can't be at all prescriptive as what one person sees as being a rational and coherent point could be seen as utter nonsense by another, even offensive as far as politics are concerned. As long as you can justify what you are saying, be it face to face on on social media, then fine. Debate is good, it's what makes professionals professional; it stirs thought and gets the grey matter going. If you don't question what you and others do, you are doing nothing more than reading a script essentially. You are a glorified Microsoft Help troubleshooter.

    On a similar point, being a regular user of C&D and Pulse

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  • To continue after my podgy digits yet again failed me...

    On a similar point, being a regular user of C&D and Pulse websites, I see an awful lot of people claiming to be healthcare professionals either anonymously or with some sort of made up name (occasionally posting as one of a number of Arsenal footballers...) post what can only be described as offensive bile. I remember an article on C&D referring to Teva, a generics manufacturer based in Israel, which was overrun with lots of what, at best, can be called anti-Semitic comments. I believe the article was actually removed and C&D forum guidelines certainly reinforced if not reviewed following this.

    Maybe forums for professionals should require the professionals to give a name and profession? At least this would remove the cloak of anonymity.

    Going back to my original point, if you wouldn't want your grandmother to see something, don't say/post it. Being offensive is very easy when hiding under a cloak of anonymity.

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  • Darren Powell

    Anthony,

    I am relieved to be able to say that, thankfully I have not been subjected to bullying or vexatious claims against me, although recently it came close - but that's my interpretation of what others would consider was just robust discussion among professionals.
    I agree vexatious claims would indeed be unprofessional.

    I must say I feel I have greater faith in the GPhC and its ability to review complaints before they even reach the investigating committee, and the annual report states that out of the 1882 cases it received, 1681 never even reached the investigations committee.
    Of those 1682 622 where deemed to need no further action.

    Again, I have been fortunate not to be on the end such of a complaint, so I'm not dismissing lightly the effect of being "investigated" - but I am a strong believer that the "truth will out".

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  • I put a comment here which is not visible. Why is that?

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  • Isn't your comment the one below this?

  • PJ is the organ of the Society which is a democratic membership body with expectation being that it would represent membership views and others in a responsible way. Professional journals paid from membership fees or subscriptions and tabloids by at on purchase do not share the same agenda or need for sensationalising and exaggerating stories, Use of rent-a-gob vs asking RPS, NPA, PDA etc as well as members in a balanced way is better.

    I do not fear the guidance I welcome it, it is GUIDANCE designed to help discussion and conduct of the regulated profession, in some ways it is 'common sense' and is not prescriptive as it cannot cover all eventualities, The professionals are expected to take broad guidelines and reflect on their practice and behaviours as they know the circumstances better,

    There is no evidence that GPhC is 'over-regulating' nor is there evidence that unwarranted complaints have put pharmacists into peril. In fact the article could frighten pharmacists into not using powerful and useful technology as well as taking part in discussions on social media.

    I would be surprised if the intention of the journalist was not to deliberately 'sex up' - using modern parlance - the story.

    The point about attracting criticism is also invalid. If people follow the guideline and the language is what you would expect from a person of professional standing than even if a complaint is received it will be dismissed. If it is not dismissed there would be an opportunity to explain and defend.

    Right to criticise is a democratic right in this country and there is both fair and unfair criticism all the time. If J Hint or GPhC or RPS is criticised they have a right of reply. End of the matter. If criticism is in the form of language or behaviour you would not expect of a professional person in this country then you should be prepared to receive as punishment what is dished out.

    The guidance does not change anything in terms of expectations of a pharmacist. It just says even on social media -which is a new form of communication- behave as you would be expected in the real world.

    More balance, greater maturity, less sensationalist ion from PJ would really be truly appreciated.

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  • Anthony,

    Thank you for your reply to my post.

    I agree with the point you make regarding "negative discussion" but it is, in my opinion, the need to extract yourself from such discussions and not respond to such which makes a professional stand out. You need the ability to view the situation objectively.

    I take on board your comments about teaching undergraduates about the pitfalls of using social media but a chair of a GPhC FtP panel recently stated that undergraduates must show the probity required of a pharmacist. The case I have in mind involved a 2nd year undergraduate and the misconduct came to light after a criminal trial which was held when they were registered as a pharmacist. So, even when undergraduates are taking their first steps, they must be able to act professionally. As social media is frequently used by undergraduates, I am happy to learn that you are actively giving guidance in this area at such an early stage.

    Returning back to the guidance, a piece of advice which is frequently given by a friend of mine to their clients, in the family court, is "You need to rise above whatever is thrown at you. You walk into court with your head held high and you need to walk away with your held head high, knowing that you have not stooped to the level of the other side." This is a very sensible and pragmatic piece of advice.

    I also agree with the comments of Hemant Patel but in particular:

    "The guidance does not change anything in terms of expectations of a pharmacist. It just says even on social media -which is a new form of communication- behave as you would be expected in the real world."

    To reiterate my earlier comment, all the guidance is saying is be sensible. Providing you are sensible when using social media, there is nothing to fear.

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  • "If you are not prepared to stand up in a room full of strangers and say what you are going to say, do not put it on social media."
    I agree with this statement, although I think it is common-sense advice which should be followed by everyone, not restricted to pharmacists and other professionals.
    My worry is that the GPhC guidance could be interpreted as "if you wouldn't say this at work, don't say it on social media". There are many occasions when I am representing my profession, or the organisation I work for where it is entirely appropriate that I should say the diplomatic thing, or refrain from commenting altogether. However, in my personal life, which in my view includes social media, I should be able to have opinions on whatever I want (of course subject to the same laws as everyone else).

    While the debate in this comments section is interesting I wonder if is effective? Is there a recognised route for registrants to share their views with the GPhC?

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  • Mark Pitt, director of defence services at the PDA
  • Sid Dajani, immediate past treasurer of Royal Pharmaceutical Society and a member of the English Pharmacy Board

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