In addition to stress and burnout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists face threats of physical violence and online doxxing.
Experts are warning of increased online harassment of scientists and medical professionals, including pharmacists, in recent months. In response, online privacy and data removal services reported a sharp increase in sign-ups from health care groups in 2020.1
Pharmacists worldwide have faced new levels of hostility during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, according to research from Albine, an online privacy company. In a report, experts cited an article by The Guardian from April 2020 in which pharmacists in the United Kingdom faced direct threats of violence during the first COVID-19 lockdown.1
Pharmacists are also seeing new scrutiny as the first COVID-19 vaccines roll out. They face targeting by anti-vaxxers and others who are skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccines, as well as general stress and burnout that can come along with the pandemic. The report said that the targeting of pharmacists on the whole is concerning, and medical professionals should be aware of potential threats and how they can protect themselves.1
Burnout is of particular concern, both because of the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and because of the increased criticism. According to the Abine report, a national survey of more than 4700 pharmacists in June 2020 found that 32% and 33% said they felt “a lot” or “totally” emotionally and physically exhausted, respectively.1 Similarly, a survey in December by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in the United Kingdom found that 89% of pharmacists said they were at “high” or “very high” risk of burnout.2
Verbal attacks and threats of violence have also become increasingly concerning in recent months. In addition to reports of violence against pharmacists, the report said there have also been calls for doxxing pharmacists, in which pharmacists’ personal information would be released online, including contact information and home addresses.1
These concerns all have real-world consequences, according to the report, including large numbers of resignations among health officials and other medical professionals. Reporting by the Associated Press and Kaiser Health News from August 2020 found that at least 49 state and local public health leaders had resigned by that point in the pandemic, either because of vilification, threats, or burnout.3
The Abine report warned that with pharmacists now acting as a very public face of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the scrutiny and harassment are only likely to increase. Ensuring online privacy may be a way for health professionals to stay safe, whether with stringent social media security or by working with a privacy protection site.
“We’ve seen malicious targeting of a wide range of health industry professionals, using private information about them found easily on the internet,” said Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO of Abine, in a statement. “Pharmacists are rapidly becoming the public-facing representatives of COVID vaccination, and we fear that they will be targeted with online harassment and in-person attacks, similar to what’s been done to public health officials over the course of this crisis.”1