E-Professionalism: How to Be Social in Today's World

Pharmacy CareersPharmacy Careers February 2014

Social media is no longer strictly personal. As the technology continues to evolve, health care professionals are becoming more involved online to help advance their careers and their practice.

Social media is no longer strictly personal. As the technology continues to evolve, health care professionals are becoming more involved online to help advance their careers and their practice.

A new report, released on November 12, 2013, by AMN Healthcare, finds that pharmacists are more likely to use social media to look for jobs and to network with other professionals compared with doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals surveyed. Pharmacy students can take advantage of this increasing emphasis on social media in the professional realm, using their personal profiles to help them connect to opportunities.

Today’s students have learned from those of the not-so-distant past and are largely aware of the importance of presenting a positive image online and the consequences that can follow when they fail to do so. But maintaining professional and personal personas and behaving in a professional manner may be easier said than done.

Through his experience as professor at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy and the knowledge he has gained from his research on e-professionalism in pharmacy, Jeff Cain, EdD, MS, has seen students struggle with the transition from the personal to the professional use of social media.

“Pharmacy students are in a situation where their activity on social media may start to affect their professional lives for the first time,” he said in an interview with Pharmacy Times. “They’re going from the social world of college to the grown-up world of professional school and adjusting social media to fit that can be a difficult transition.”

Attempting to maintain a reputable image, many students sever their professional and personal personas, deleting or hiding profiles and becoming virtually nonexistent. But professionalism online extends beyond altering privacy settings to hide party photos and embarrassing conversations with friends. In fact, students who are invisible online could be missing valuable opportunities.

For pharmacy students, social media can be a powerful tool to connect with employers, other pharmacists and health care providers, and even patients. Using the Internet in each of these capacities presents unique challenges and considerations for students as they try to balance professional and personal identities.

Staying Professional and Positive

A recent study assessing pharmacy student attitudes on e-professionalism found that while more students are actively using social media, more students recognize the need to make changes to their profiles before they start applying for jobs.

The study, published in the September 12, 2013, issue of the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, surveyed graduating pharmacy students on their use of social media and their opinions of professionalism online. Of the 209 students surveyed, 93% said they had a social media profile. Although social media use is high among students, most said they were careful about their online activities, and 55% indicated that pharmacy employers should view social media profiles when making hiring decisions.

Whether students feel being held accountable for their social media behavior is fair or not, it is a reality of the modern hiring process. A 2013 survey conducted by CareerBuilder finds that 39% of employers use social networking websites to research job candidates when making hiring decisions.

“Recognize that others will view your profiles to make judgments of you—accept it,” Cain advised.

According to the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education study, a majority of pharmacy students are heeding this advice and are preparing their profiles to be judged by potential employers. Nearly 75% of students surveyed said they planned on making changes to their profiles before beginning their job searches and 53% felt it was important to be careful about sharing information online.

As the study results suggest, Cain said that he sees fewer professionalism issues than in the past, as students are more aware of the consequences. However, students may still inadvertently hurt their chances of landing their first job. While party pictures have typically been thought to be an instant death sentence to job applications, Cain notes that employers may place more value on other aspects of their social media behavior.

“Party pictures are not that big of a deal; it’s more about attitude,” he said. “One of the worst things students can do is be whiny or negative. If someone is always posting negative things, especially job-related posts, it sends a signal that they’re not someone others would want to work with or hire.”

Joining the Conversation

Although social media is typically associated with negatively affecting the chances of getting hired, professional profiles may actually help students find a job in the competitive market. Many employers may not necessarily be looking for negative qualities when viewing job candidates’ social media profiles, but may use the platforms in order to distinguish candidates who have the same qualifications on paper.

“Sometimes, employers look to social media to confirm their first impression of a candidate, and a professional appearance can be a deciding factor,” Cain said.

Students who establish themselves as knowledgeable young professionals online may be at an advantage when looking for a job. Networking with other pharmacists and health care professionals can be essential to help students create a professional identity and can open the door to career opportunities. Although students can utilize any social networking site in a professional manner, Twitter and blogs tend to be the most popular professional platforms. On twitter, pharmacists connect and share information, while pharmacy-related blogs comment on news and issues for an audience of other professionals. While networking through these channels is common, getting started can be a challenge for students who do not know many other professionals and are not sure where to start.

“Find out who the big players are and start following them,” Cain suggested. “See who they interact with and start following and connecting with those individuals as well. Ask experts relevant questions, comment on issues, and get to know them in that way.”

Professional networking may not appeal to all students, and Cain says that’s OK. But for those students who strategically use social media to craft a professional identity, the benefits could help shape their careers.

“After a year or 2 of networking, I’ve seen students use their connections to help secure residencies,” Cain said. “Those who effectively use social media to network are getting their names out there as someone trying to be a role model professional.”

Communicating Carefully

Not only are pharmacists using social media to communicate with other professionals, but many have seized opportunities to use the technology to better connect with patients as well. However, while social media can be a powerful tool to share information about products and services, answer questions, provide reminders, and garner feedback, students entering the professional world should be cautious when connecting with patients online.

“A major point to remember is that social media is not private; therefore, pharmacies must be cautious when placing content on their company social media pages,” a recent article published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association advised. “Pharmacists should be equally cautious when posting personal messaging via social media pages.”

Adhering to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) should be the primary concern when sharing information with patients through social media. Cain also stressed the importance of following corporate policies. Young professionals who may be used to using social media without much thought should familiarize themselves with their employer’s specific guidelines before interacting with patients online.

In addition to HIPPA and policy concerns, students should also be mindful of how they construct their messages. Effective communication with patients can be more challenging through the Internet.

“Once you start using social media to connect with patients, things become more difficult,” Cain said. “Can you provide adequate, correct information in a timely manner online?”

As tools to manage health care through the web evolve and gain momentum, pharmacists will need to develop skills to successfully communicate with patients through this medium.

Finding Balance

Social media can be a powerful professional tool for pharmacy students, and using it effectively requires a balance between personal and professional personas. Students should view their profiles from the perspective of an outsider, considering how they want to be perceived by others. Those who present themselves as mature professionals—as well as unique individuals—will be the ones most likely to benefit from social networking in both their personal and professional lives.

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