Never underestimate the power of trust

The concept of trust is crucial to how consumers respond to what their pharmacy offers them, as well as the long-term future of our profession, writes Gerard Stevens

Trust is a powerful concept about confidence and reliability; about having enough confidence in someone or something to be able to rely on them to deliver a helpful outcome when you need it.

Trust is an entirely human attribute involving relationships between people and this can be traced to the neurobiological structure and activity of a human brain. Some studies indicate that trust can be altered, such as by the application of oxytocin.1

Without trust, family units and, indeed, entire societies, become unworkable. It is the glue that holds relationships together.

For pharmacists the concept of trust is crucial to both how consumers respond to what their pharmacy offers them and, more broadly, the long-term future of our noble profession.

For me there’s no secret as to why we pharmacists maintain a high level of community trust in the various surveys that rate jobs and professions each year.

Health consumers have come to trust the level of knowledge that pharmacists possess and our commitment to using it for their benefit. They have the confidence that they can rely on our knowledge and our willingness to use it for their benefit.

We begin our professional lives backed by four years of hard, challenging study, followed by a year of practical implementation. That’s five years of effort before we even get the opportunity to become a registered, practising pharmacist.

And even then there’s a high fail rate for the registration exam. After that it’s a lifelong commitment to maintaining and updating our professional knowledge.

This profession-wide commitment of time and effort in building a deep knowledge and understanding of medication, and maintaining its currency, fosters a reliable level of competence – an outcome that the community has come to rely upon because it consistently satisfies them.

So medication knowledge and its perceived value is at the heart of what has become a social contract with the communities we care for, which is based on trust.

Curiously that seems to be largely irrespective of the brand on the front of the pharmacy we work in.

Our profession’s branding – the image that each consumer has of a pharmacist – is based on their trust that our knowledge will benefit their health, and the professional commitment to consistently deliver it whenever they walk through our front doors.

And the Trust Surveys demonstrate that we’ve been successful: the community holds the broad view that they can expect consistent, knowledge-based delivery of services that benefit them.

And herein lies a conundrum. If there is a degree of homogeneity in what consumers have come to expect from pharmacists, how do you attract and keep customers coming to your pharmacy instead of them simply choosing their closest pharmacy.

Of course, many of you will answer: it’s the service – “we have the best service and our customers come to know and ask for our regular staff”.

Yes, great service, backed by useful knowledge is crucial to creating loyal customers. But most pharmacies hang their hat on great service. So that’s not much of a point of differentiation.

At this point it’s useful to consider the difference between transaction and service. Community-wide trust is based on the broad sense of service it receives within pharmacies, reinforced consistently, time and again. This is about our professional commitment and obligation to serve them, hence the ‘serve’ in ‘service’.

There is another type of service that occurs in pharmacies, and supermarkets for that matter. It’s the efficiency and friendliness associated with the transactions that occur within pharmacies.

By its very definition, a transaction is an agreement that something, usually money, will be exchanged for an outcome – usually a product or a specific service. This is a cut-and-dry process: the consumer has a reasonable idea about their options and feels in control of the process. Trust plays a minor role, unless the pharmacist’s advice is crucial to the outcome of the transaction.

The branding of pharmacy groups, some more successful than others, take advantage of the halo effect that the community’s professional trust has on the rest of the pharmacy. But they can’t control that. What they can control are the attributes that they stand for and which they have deduced are of most interest to their customer base. This is where price and other non-professional pharmacy attributes have crept into the equation.

But trust is not automatic and can be discarded at the whim of a negative human response to what we do. Because trust is an inherently human construct, we need to maintain and reinforce it within a human context.

This is best achieved from the perspective that everyone is an individual – from both a clinical and transaction context.

I love acronyms because they help me to remember things that are important to me. One of my favourites is S H E A F, which stands for:






These are all qualities that customers respond to, whether in a simple transaction or in the delivery of a professional service. They help to make a transaction pleasant and engaging. But they also bring a genuineness to any professional consultation that will reinforce the trust the consumer has in the process.

The key to that tailored, individual advice is effective management of the patient’s medication profile. That’s at the core of what we do well as pharmacists.

In this day and age of blurred professional boundaries, medication profile management is unequivocally the pharmacist’s domain. It’s also where we can add value with the many tools and services we have at our disposal to deliver tailored pharmaceutical care to the individual.

It is the veracity of the medication profile and its effective management that leads to real and valued clinical benefits for patients, and the ability of aged care facilities to meet their accreditation requirements. We must do better at explaining what we do so that it is viewed as a valued and trusted service rather than a bolt-on transaction.

It all comes down to ensuring patients receive and take their medication as prescribed by their doctor. That’s the problem we’re solving here and a big part of the solution is understanding the patient’s personal motivations.

Trust overcomes many barriers to achieving this. It has a halo effect on everything the consumer experiences in the pharmacy. But just as trust can be leveraged, it can also be easily lost at the whim of a human response.

Great service and consumer engagement, based on useful knowledge and accurate information, can help to reinforce trust. Conversely, a transactional approach to medication management service delivery can devalue it. Attention to detail, genuine professional interest and empathy will add to consumer trust.

Medication management is at the heart of the social contract pharmacists have with the community. We must recognise that every patient is an individual with a unique medication profile which needs regular and accurate updating.

Gerard Stevens AM is the founder and Managing Director of Webstercare.


  1. Theodoridou A, Rowe AC, Penton-Voak IS, Rogers PJ (June 2009). “Oxytocin and social perception: oxytocin increases perceived facial trustworthiness and attractiveness”. Hormones and Behavior. 56 (1): 128–32. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.03.019. PMID19344725.

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