Social media and pharmacy: 6 tips on best practices

April 10, 2014

Pharmacies that don't use social media will soon go the way of the dinosaur. Here are six tips for making these modalities work for you.

Social media - whether blog posts, Facebook announcements, or Twitter messages - have become great tools for communicating and engaging with colleagues and patients.

Social media enable pharmacists to join interest groups and interact with every member of each group. They can share information, recommendations, reviews, photos, videos, and links to internet sites devoted to pharmacy issues and health matters.

The speed at which social media and social networking sites have grown is breathtaking. Facebook, founded in 2004, now has more than 1.2 billion users. Twitter, a form of mini-blogging launched in 2006, now has more than 240 million monthly active users.

Access to these sites is immediate. You can snap a photo with your smart phone and post it on Facebook or Twitter in moments.

Social media offer a way to interact with pharmacy patients/customers on a daily (or more frequent) basis, making them an ideal supplement to regular marketing tools.

Pharmacists and pharmacies can gain from using social media, but they must be aware of the potential risks.

 

Connect fast

Joel ClaycombUse of social media is not an absolute necessity for a community pharmacy or drugstore chain, at least not yet, said Joel Claycomb, PharmD, a community pharmacist in the Pittsburgh area.

“But I can see it going in that direction in three to five years, where major pharmacies will have to have contact with it,” he said. The sooner pharmacists become comfortable interacting with patients this way, the better, he added. “They are going to be a step ahead of the competition.”

 

 

Brendan O'Hara“You have the ability to make a statement about your pharmacy and to reach so many people so quickly,” said Brenden O’Hara, BS Pharm, a pharmacist with Ateb, Inc., a healthcare software company in Raleigh, N.C.

Messages on social networks can be tailored to the day’s events, O'Hara said. A message such as "The CDC says flu is in this area. Have you gotten your flu shot?" fits easily into a 140-character tweet.

 

Target your niche

Choice of which social network to use depends in large part upon the nature of the audience, noted O'Hara. The group you want to reach may not be using the network you like personally, he said. Pharmacists may need to direct messages toward an intermediary instead of the patient. For example, he said, although many elderly people enjoy using social networks, many do not; the only posts that will reach them will be those passed on by their caregivers. 

"Each of the major social networks offers a unique niche," said Claycomb. Facebook has a general population of users. LinkedIn is primarily for business and professional networking. Pinterest allows users to create bulletin boards to show friends photos and share information about personal interests. YouTube posts video content, including health education videos. Twitter allows for quick messages and photos.

Compared to other forms of marketing, social media can give a pharmacy a long reach for very little money. Accounts on many social media networks are free. However, hiring a marketing firm to handle social media for the pharmacy, including creation and maintenance of a website, might be a good idea, said O'Hara.

A staff member can be assigned to post information to a network, but posting should not be done from that person’s own computer or phone. This can help ensure that a post aimed at the staffer's friends does not go out under the company name, O'Hara said. Using a specific computer or phone for this can also help the staffer be more mindful of the message being sent, he added.

 

Know the pitfalls

The advantages of social media are accompanied by several potentially serious pitfalls.

Facebook posts and Twitter messages are communications have a greater reach than print does, and once created, they can be impossible to delete. A tweet or post can be shared and shared again, sending a comment intended for a small circle of people out to the entire world. An offhand comment or inappropriate posting can insult and anger people, and make a pharmacist very unprofessional.

How often such problems occur for pharmacists is not known. Nearly 80% of state or international boards of pharmacy now have policies regarding the use of social media and the internet, according to a 2013 article in Innovations in Pharmacy. The article noted that 60% of the state boards responding to a survey had received complaints about postings made by pharmacists to social media.  

 

Learn the standards

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) has issued a statement at its website on pharmacists’ use of social media (www.ASHP.org). ASHP recommends that pharmacists use social media, because these tools can help educate the public about the best uses of medication and disseminate information rapidly. However, professional standards concerning medical advice must be maintained, and pharmacists must understand the limits of the new media. ASHP strongly warns against violation of patient privacy and against disparagement of patients, even in anonymous terms.

The Texas State Board of Pharmacy and other state organizations have also issued guidelines on the use of social media. Schools of pharmacy at the University of Maryland and the University of California, San Diego, among others, have issued guidelines and best practices for their students.

 

Keep things professional

The biggest concern connected with the use of social media has to do with the importance of ensuring the privacy of a patient's health information.

A breach of confidentiality will run afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), warned O'Hara. The speed and ease of posting means that it is easy for the poster to forget the impact of a message or to overlook the fact that it contains confidential information, he said. Breaches of confidentiality on social media are a two-way street, he added. It is equally possible for a patient to post private information to a pharmacy's blog or on Facebook inadvertently.

Missteps made on social media can create the perception of a lack of professionalism, warned Claycomb. A pharmacist who is venting on Facebook about difficult patients is not likely to make a good impression. "For professional adults, you’d think this awareness would be second nature, but when you're on social media, a lot of rules get thrown out the window," he said.

"The issue is not so much about the message reflecting on me as it is about my association with my company and profession," said O'Hara. For example, a pharmacist who badmouths a medication online is seen as a health authority, a perception that gives the words greater importance. A post can be misconstrued. And a comment about being tired after administering 50 vaccinations in one day may look like a knock against vaccination programs.

    Watch your tone

The tone of a post or tweet must be kept professional, said Claycomb. “A casual tone can come off as flippant,” said Claycomb.

“Tone is absolutely a concern,” O'Hara agreed. “I don't hear that you were saying this with a twinge of sarcasm.”

Brevity is a good thing. Claycomb suggests keeping messages basic, such as simply telling people what new services the pharmacy offers or announcing sales and promotions.

“If you craft the message well, you pull people in,” he said. When people who see your message share it with others, it puts the pharmacy and the pharmacist's name into even wider circulation, - the goal of using social media.

 

Social media engagement: Additional resources 

Drug Topics

YouTube video on the use of social media

http://bit.ly/drtpsocmed

PharmQD

www.pharmqd.com

Pharmacy Development Services

http://bit.ly/ownermedia

Rx Social Media

http://bit.ly/openpharm

Social Media Pharmacist

www.facebook.com/SocialMediaPharmacist

 

Valerie DeBenedette is a freelance writer in Lake Carmel, N.Y.