Little published research exists on how boards of pharmacy respond to claims of unprofessional social media behavior by pharmacists, says Samford University pharmacy professor Dr. Peter J. Hughes.
But results of a new international study by Hughes and two Samford colleagues show that boards' opinions vary widely in what types of online behaviors may prompt a formal investigation into a pharmacist's conduct.
In collaboration with Samford pharmacy professors Dr. Lindsey Elmore and Dr. Jessica Skelley, Hughes recently surveyed 54 pharmacy boards in the U.S. and 10 in three other countries on the topic. The electronic survey was distributed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. The researchers all teach in the pharmacy practice department of Samford's McWhorter School of Pharmacy.
Hughes presented the research findings at an International Pharmaceutical Federation meeting in Dublin, Ireland, last week. Representatives from more than 120 nations attended.
"There is a lot of discrepancy with respect to how United States, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand boards of pharmacy would handle potential cases of unprofessional conduct by pharmacists when using social media sites," Hughes said.
The survey contained questions on the involvement of boards with online content and social media, as well as 10 fictitious vignettes that portrayed possibly questionable behavior. The scenarios include a patient's report that images of him receiving a vaccine were posted on a website without his consent and a complaint of false claims about a compounded product's potential benefit. One case dealt with a post that showed a pharmacist drinking alcohol at a hospital pharmacy holiday party.
Respondents ranked the likelihood of their investigating complaints regarding incidents depicted in the vignettes. Hughes says he has no clear explanation for the varying results.
"When dealing with posts that could allude to addiction or dependency problems, boards of pharmacy would respond with much more consensus because there are established pathways for rehabilitating impaired pharmacists. This would be the same for pharmacists who make false or misleading product claims regarding their compounded products," said Hughes.
"Where the ambiguity sets in is with activity surrounding prejudiced and bigoted speech as well as sexual harassment outside the workspace while using social media sites. It seems that boards of pharmacy responded with less consensus regarding these issues," he said.
The report also concludes that additional dialogue is needed among pharmacy leaders to coordinate consistent enforcement of policies dealing with unprofessional online acts.
Hughes said that his Dublin audience was very receptive to the Samford team's findings. "I received much positive feedback from several Australian pharmacists as well as Irish pharmacists who are members of the regulatory board of pharmacy there," he said.
There is a potential collaboration in the works with pharmacists in Ireland to replicate the study in European Union nations, which did not receive the Samford survey, to see if there are similar or different results from EU boards of pharmacy, said Hughes.