Be careful what you post

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Did a pharmacist’s Facebook post about their views on termination of pregnancy constitute unsatisfactory conduct?

The Board writes that a notifier alleged that personal views about abortion, published on a pharmacist’s Facebook page, were not appropriate.

“Although the Facebook page was a closed group, pharmacy patients were members of the group,” the Board writes.

“The pharmacist’s Facebook page included photos of the practitioner at work as a pharmacist.

“The notifier was concerned that pharmacy patients may be subject to judgement in certain circumstances and may not receive unbiased or timely healthcare.”

The Board notes that the allegation raised issues about health practitioners’ responsibilities when using social media, as outlined by the Boards’ policy on the subject.

“When using social media, pharmacists should remember that the National Law, the Pharmacy Board’s Code of conduct for pharmacists, and the Guidelines for advertising regulated health services (the advertising guidelines) apply,” it notes.

“Whether or not an online activity can be viewed by the public or is limited to a specific group of people, registered health practitioners need to maintain professional standards and be aware of the implications of their actions, as in all professional circumstances.”

The Board says that anything posted on social media needs to not be in breach of these obligations.

Pharmacists need to comply with professional obligations, and with confidentiality and privacy obligations.

They also need to present information in an unbiased, evidence-based context, and not make unsubstantiated claims.

According to the Board’s Code of Conduct, good practice includes being aware that differences – such as gender, sexuality, age, belief systems and other anti-discrimination grounds – may influence care needs.

Pharmacists need to avoid discrimination based on these difference, the Board notes.

“While individual practitioners have their own personal beliefs and values, there are certain professional values on which all practitioners are expected to base their practice,” it says.

These professional values apply to the practitioner’s conduct regardless of the setting – including in person, and electronically, such as via social media.

The Board says that it formed a reasonable belief that the practitioner had displayed unprofessional conduct, with respect to inappropriate comments on social media.

The behaviour was below the standard reasonably expected of a pharmacist by the public or their professional peers, it notes.

While individuals have a right to express their personal views on social media, in this case the Board says it considered the pharmacist’s use of social media to be in breach of the National Boards’ policy on the subject, as well as the Pharmacy Board’s Code of conduct for pharmacists.

This was for several reasons, including that the pharmacist failed to present information in an unbiased, evidence-based context, and that they failed to demonstrate awareness of their own beliefs and how these could impact on the practitioner-patient relationship.

The pharmacist also failed to demonstrate awareness that differences in belief systems may inform the care needs of persons receiving healthcare, and failed to demonstrate awareness of the cultural needs of patients, who might be privy to the Facebook posts, in the context of providing good health outcomes.

The Board formed a reasonable belief that the pharmacist’s conduct was unsatisfactory, and proposed to caution him.

It says that pharmacists who use social media need to remember that their professional obligations continue when they are active online.

Its Code of conduct and social media policies apply to all digital activity, which includes public forums and closed groups.

The Board also noted that the social media policy provides guidance on pharmacists’ responsibilities and obligations when using and communicating on social media – including whether material posted constitutes advertising.

“Anyone using social media to advertise a regulated health service needs to meet the advertising requirements of the National Law,” it says. “This includes removing any testimonials from a pharmacist’s social media page.”

It advises that useful principles to remember when active online include that pharmacists should:

  • maintain professional standards and be aware of the implications of your actions, as in all professional circumstances
  • be aware of your ethical and regulatory responsibilities when you are interacting online – they are the same as when you interact in person
  • ensure that you protect the privacy and confidentiality of patient information, and
  • comply with the advertising provisions in the National Law and with the Board’s advertising guidelines.

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  1. Jarrod McMaugh

    I wonder if the pharmacist in question actually said in their social media post that they would not provide care or referral in the instance of a person presenting with a request related to abortion?

    If not, then I don’t understand how a person could be cautioned for what theymight do.

    My personal and professional stance on providing assistance to a person who requests it for emergency contraception or medical abortion are both very clear, and at odds with this person’s belief, yet I can’t support a system that would punish someone for expressing that belief.

    I think the board need to clarify the extent of this person’s comments so that the context is maintained. Otherwise, is it considered a breach to simply state a disagreement with current practice? Could a person be censured for saying they don’t believe in blood transfusions, or for stating that they will not dispense benzodiazepines?

    On the flip side, given the nature of the regulation around advertisements and social media posts, can a pharmacist be censured for discussing homeopathy in a positive light, given the published evidence, the NHMRC position, PSA’s position, and AHPRA’s adoption of the code of ethics? This seems to be a common and consistent breach that AHPRA should consider acting upon.

    • John Wilks

      A very thoughtful and incisive analysis Jarrod.

      You and I have debated and disagreed on the Vic euthanasia laws, but it is now a law, so am I/we henceforth precluded from further debating this issue? More to it, am I no longer able to strongly object to what I see as the legal moral and philosophical deficiencies of that law?

      Are my views now subject to professional censorship?

      Or are said bodies guilty of thought-control over reach?

      I wonder what Winston Smith would have said about this decision? Rats, perhaps?

      • pagophilus

        Regarding the Vic euthanasia laws you have the right not to be involved unlike Vic abortion laws unfortunately, which require you to refer.

        • John Wilks

          Thank you for the clarification. Hence in Victoria a pharmacist is allowed to exercise and practice according to his or her moral code apropos of euthanasia, but cannot apply those some moral principles in the case of abortion?

          This is a perplexing metaphysical conundrum which is predicated, I think, on confusion over the Dialogue of Rights.

          But work presses, so I must away.

    • Well said and agree with you on this one Jarrod. Definitely would like some context. This has all the makings of “Israel Folau 2.0” to me.

  2. pagophilus

    Perhaps the board need to tell us what was said, or at least hint at what was said, so we can understand what was inappropriate about the post.

  3. AndyR

    Agreed. There has to be freedom of speech, regardless of one’s views for and against the particular topic being debated.

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