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.
Source: Royal Pharmaceutical Society
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.