Social media is omnipresent today. Be it in private life or at work, every action and decision can be instantly projected to millions of people worldwide. As with all technological advancements, the omnipresence of social media is potentially a double-edged sword.

In the age where social media is powerful enough to influence the presidency candidature of a country, how should pharmacists draw the line that separates professionalism with the freedom to express their thoughts?

How well connected are Malaysians?

According to the 2016 report by the Malaysian Digital Association, close to 70% of Malaysians have access to the internet. Within the "online" population, almost all of them use social media as one of their communication tools. On average, Malaysians spend 5.1 hours a day on the internet, where 2.8 hours of the time is spent on social networks.

To put this into perspective, collectively Malaysians spend a staggering 21 billion hours on social media annually. Unsurprisingly, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals are increasing their reliance on digital platforms to communicate and interact with their patients and peers.

Social media and pharmacy

The utilisation of social media to exchange information is a contemporary method that presents unique challenges, especially to pharmacists in upholding professional conducts that are deemed appropriate.

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia looked at how pharmacists use social media in their daily practice. The team reported that the respondents, mostly community pharmacists, limited their online interactions on social media.

Although most of the pharmacies own a Facebook page, the pharmacist owners did not “friend” consumers on their page in order to maintain a clear “boundary between professional and personal relationship”. Nonetheless, the respondents also saw the need to correct misleading information that was widely circulated on social media. Some innovative pharmacists used short YouTube videos to augment patient counselling in the pharmacy.

The grey areas

Concerns over patients’ privacy and confidentiality should take precedence when exploring social media as an alternative communication channel. There is still yet a suitable protection mechanism that can ensure information shared on these platforms will not be exploited by a third party, where the data could be used against either the patient or the pharmacist.

Secondly, there is a lack of evidence to support the notion that communication through social media is both effective and accurate. Text messages and written paragraphs or essays are the most commonly used media to convey health questions and relevant answers.

Without sufficient contact with patients, pharmacists will have a tough time to correctly assess their conditions, let alone provide accurate clinical advice to them.

Malaysian MOH guidelines

In order to address the increasing use of social media among healthcare professionals for clinical consultations, the Malaysian Ministry of Health issued a guideline to the healthcare professionals (HCP) working in public health facilities. The guideline particularly focuses on consultation between HCPs.

From the 8-page long guideline, the MOH stressed the importance of maintaining patients' confidentiality. HCPs are urged not to share images or videos that contain any patient identifiers, such as names, hospital registration number or their home address. Written consent should be sought from the patients before HCPs are allowed to upload any material relating to them.

The MOH also outlined the criteria of a "good social media platform that can be approved and used for group consultation". Features such as traceable member profiles, the presence of a moderator and sufficient security to exclude public access to the data are suggested. The guideline goes further to prohibit the use of several popular social media for consultation purposes. The banned platforms include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. MIMS

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Malaysian Digital Association. 2016 MALAYSIA DIGITAL LANDSCAPE. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Digital Association; 2016.
Benetoli A, Chen TF, Schaefer M, Chaar B, Aslani P. Do pharmacists use social media for patient care? Int J Clin Pharm. 2017 Apr 15;39(2):364–72.
Ketua Pengarah Kesihatan Malaysia. Surat Pekeliling Ketua Pengarah Kesihatan Bil 10/2016: Garis Panduan Penggunaan Media Social Dalam Perkhidmatan Penjagaan Pesakit Di Fasiliti Kementerian Kesihatan Malaysia (KKM). 2016.