The Emerging Role of Pharmacists as Social Media Influencers

Pharmacists have had to adapt to meeting more frequently online instead of in person, while embracing new ways of delivering care and disseminating health care information.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow people to share personal and professional content as well as communicate and connect with each other online. These interactive tools have completely changed the landscape of information exchange with 72% of US adults in 2021 saying they use at least one social media site.1

In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the internet and social media play an even more crucial role in our daily lives. Pharmacists have had to adapt to meeting more frequently online instead of in person, while embracing new ways of delivering care and disseminating health care information.

An emerging avenue is through social media influencing, in which influencers help promote brands, enhance their own or an organization’s popularity, and create effective communication strategies to engage the public.2 Many pharmacists have also entered this space, creating a new nontraditional role of pharmacist social media influencers (PSMIs).

In 2012, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists published a statement encouraging pharmacists’ use of social media as tools to complement and enhance their relationships with the public, health care providers, and patients.3 Student pharmacists mostly use social media as a means to personally communicate with their friends.4

A small percentage of pharmacists use social media predominantly or exclusively for professional purposes.2 For the pharmacists who have built an alternative career as PSMIs, their role is not well understood and has yet to be characterized.

As fourth-year University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) student pharmacist researchers, we surveyed 63 pharmacy students to understand their perceptions of PSMIs and compared this to what identified PSMIs described. The perception and attitude toward social media benefits and perceived outcomes predict social media usage and characterize the social media influence and career of PSMIs.5

Observed differences between student pharmacist perception and reality may provide the necessary knowledge to boost the presence of PSMIs, encourage pharmacy students to potentially consider social media influencing as a career, and validate the importance of PSMIs. We believe this study to be the first, of hopefully many, detailing this emerging pharmacist role.

According to the American Influencer Council (AIC), social media influencers satisfy the following criteria: having an active and public social media presence, engaging in influencer marketing, representing or partnering with business-to-consumer or business-to-business brands, being publicly and industry-recognized as an influencer, and being known for personal branding, digital custom content, and follower integrity.6 However, our study showed that the only trait that PSMIs shared was having an active and public social media presence, while the presence of all other criteria varied among individual PSMIs.

Depending on the purpose of their social media use, PSMIs may not strictly meet all AIC criteria to achieve their goals. Consequently, defining a social media influencer is difficult and the potential negative connotation associated with “social media influencing” and varying definitions are likely reasons 27% of our surveyed PSMIs did not consider themselves as social media influencers but are considered by others as one. Lastly, out of more than 80 PSMIs that we identified and invited to complete the study, only 25 PSMIs participated.

Our study showed that most PSMIs (>50%) used LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, or a personal website for their social media work, whereas most students (>50%) used Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for their leisure. Our data suggest that multiple archetypes of a PSMI exist. A majority of PSMI’s social media content involves education and advocacy, both of which are pharmacy- or health care-related. Additional content involves lifestyle, food and nutrition, fitness, finances, entertainment, travel, career, and technology.

Furthermore, a majority of PSMIs do not commit as much time toward their social media work as students perceive most PSMIs to commit. Most PSMIs spent 10 to 20 hours (38%) or 0 to 10 hours (27%) per week on social media for work as a PSMI, whereas most students believed that PSMIs commit 10 to 20 hours (41%) or 20 to 30 hours per week (35%) toward social media work. Interestingly, most students surveyed are heavy social media consumers who allocated 10 to 20 hours per week (45%) or 20 to 30 hours per week (35%) on social media.

We wanted to explore how satisfied PSMIs were with their job in social media and what their average yearly income was. In terms of job satisfaction, we conducted our surveys by asking Likert scale type questions related to various factors, such as career satisfaction, job fulfillment, appropriate workload, and value. For each Likert scale question, a numerical value of 1 through 4 was assigned with the ranges 1=strongly disagree, 2=somewhat disagree, 3=somewhat agree, and 4=strongly agree to determine how satisfied PSMIs were with their job.

Through our findings, we determined that PSMIs had a total composite mean score of 3.44. This was equivalent to the fact that on average, PSMIs had a positive outlook overall on the pharmacy profession as they somewhat agree that they are satisfied with their job.

In terms of income, PSMIs generated an average of approximately $31,250 from annual revenue earned from social media platforms. None of the PSMIs reported a net loss or did not make any money from their social media platforms. We also determined that most of the PSMIs’ main source of income came from sales of their own products and services (71%).

We also conducted in depth interviews with 6 PSMIs who provided additional insight into their social media careers. It is important to note that 83% of the interviewees did not consider themselves as PSMIs even though they were recognized as others to be a PSMI.

All the interviewees stated that they started using social media to share content based on their own experiences as a pharmacist and a third of the respondents created an online presence because they saw an educational gap and wanted to bring awareness to a certain niche of the profession. When asked if they ever found at any point that their social media presence has hurt their career, many of the interviewees mentioned that they were cautious about what they said on their social media platforms and maintained professionalism so as to not hurt their careers.

Half of the interviewees even stated that they set strict boundaries and never provided any medical advice via social media. Additionally, every interviewed PSMI defined success in their social media careers based not on number of followers but rather the value of the content. Finally, some advice PSMIs have for new pharmacists who want to establish an online social media presence include understanding your purpose and vision, identifying where and who your audience is, picking something you are passionate about, and finding something that makes you unique.

We hope that our study results are useful to both current and aspiring PSMIs. We observed a growing and supportive online community among PSMIs and their audience members and believe there is definitely a place in the social media realm for pharmacist social media influencers.

About the Authors

Grace Huynh, Tiffany Pham, Monica Vuong, and Curtis Yu are graduating student pharmacists from the University of California, San Francisco. Luke Tso PharmD, BCPS served as faculty advisor. For questions about our study, please contact Monica Vuong at monica.vuong@ucsf.edu.

References

  1. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. 2021. Demographics of Social Media Users and Adoption in the United States. [online] Available at: <https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/> [Accessed 30 April 2021].
  2. Barry AR, Pearson GJ. Professional use of social media by pharmacists. Can J Hosp Pharm. 2015; 68(1):22-27. doi:10.4212/cjhp.v68i1.1421
  3. ASHP Statement on Use of Social Media by Pharmacy Professionals: Developed through the ASHP Pharmacy Student Forum and the ASHP Section of Pharmacy Informatics and Technology and approved by the ASHP Board of Directors on April 13, 2012, and by the ASHP House of Delegates on June 10, 2012. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy. 2012; 69(23):2095–2097. Accessed at https://doi.org/10.2146/sp120011
  4. O’Hara B, Fox B, Donahue B. Social media in pharmacy: Heeding its call, leveraging its power. Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. 2013; 53(6):561,565,567-568. Accessed at https://doi.org/10.1331/JAPhA.2013.13536.
  5. McGowan BS, Wasko M, Vartabedian BS, Miller RS, Freiherr DD, Abdolrasulnia M. Understanding the factors that influence the adoption and meaningful use of social media by physicians to share medical information. J Med Internet Res. 2012;14(5):e117. Published 2012 Sep 24. doi:10.2196/jmir.2138
  6. AIC Membership: Career Influencers. American Influencer Council - AIC. https://www.americaninfluencercouncil.com/aic-membership-for-career-social-media-influencers. Accessed August 1, 2020.