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July 15, 2020
Proper communication can help licensees address complaints at their pharmacy.

In 2019, over 800 issues of public concern were reported to the college. While some involved drug errors or competence, more than half of the complaints were related to the management of pharmacies and the conduct of the staff. It is ultimately the licensee’s responsibility to help address any complaints about any member of their pharmacy team or the pharmacy in general.

“When a complaint is brought to the attention of a pharmacist or licensee, it is key to establish more open communication with the individual and recognize the individual’s perspective,” explained James Krempien, ACP Complaints Director. “By doing so, many or most complaints can be resolved at the pharmacy.”

Licensees should take steps ahead of time by implementing strategies to help prevent misunderstandings or miscommunication from escalating. Individuals should be fully educated about the services that a pharmacy provides and given a realistic expectation about how long those services will take and why. Understanding leads to acceptance; and acceptance forms informed expectations.

The licensee must develop clear policies and procedures about how customer complaints are handled and ensure all staff are familiar with them. A consistent process ensures a better outcome.

Staff should be person-centred and develop positive and trusting relationships with every individual. If an individual comes to the licensee with a complaint, the first responsibility is to listen. Be attentive and do not interrupt until they are finished. Listen not only for the words, but for their emotions, their assumptions, and what they are not saying. Once you understand, you can single out the real issues and get to the root of the problem. The Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA) offers a toolkit detailing the ReLATE/ReSPOND model that is helpful as a guide through this process.

“The practice environment created by a licensee sets the stage for how patients perceive their pharmacy providers,” said James. “Listening to the patient and properly responding to their concerns are essential aspects in maintaining a trusting patient-pharmacist professional relationship.”

Licensees must show a willingness to deal with the problem immediately. Immediate action shows individuals that you have taken their concerns seriously and can prevent a minor situation from escalating. However, do not respond so quickly or offhandedly that the individual feels “brushed off.”  Licensees must

  • let the complainant completely express their concern,
  • acknowledge them and deduce the issue behind that concern,
  • gather additional information, and
  • promptly respond to the complainant.

Simple concerns can turn into a formal complaint if the complainant believes the pharmacist or licensee is not willing to take them seriously. Avoid language that seems dismissive, including humour. Do not use generic blanket statements like “It’s the law” or “I did (or didn’t) do that because ACP requires me to do that.” An individual may not understand the underlying reason(s) for doing something a certain way, so always explain the reason(s) in direct relation to how it impacts/benefits them.

For example, ACP often receives complaints from individuals after a pharmacist has asked for their demographic information prior to selling a Schedule 2 drug. Some individuals may have serious privacy concerns before releasing this information. Instead of responding to their concern with, “Because it’s the law,” explain that the information is gathered to make sure that the sale of the medication is placed on the correct patient record. That ensures that this information can be securely shared through Netcare and allows all healthcare professionals to provide better care. An explanation may take a little more time, but it is a far more helpful and respectful response. It takes nowhere near as much time as responding to a formal complaint or trying to regain the trust of an angry individual.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry,” as apologizing is not an admission of guilt. The Alberta Evidence Amendment Act was approved in the Alberta Legislature in Oct. 2008. The amendment guarantees that an apology will not be construed as an admission of liability in the courts. Even before determining how the problem started or proposing a solution, apologizing for the event is okay. For example, “I am truly sorry you had to go through this experience, and we will do all we can to prevent it in the future.”

Finally, the licensee should review and keep handy all relevant documents, including the

Knowing and acting on the licensee’s responsibilities in dealing with complaints will help the entire pharmacy team develop a stronger sense of trust and respect with the communities they serve.