Words count. While the saying is ‘talk is cheap’, what you say and how you say it can actually mean a lot, writes Chris Brooker

In today’s world we’re being increasingly asked to think about how we address our fellow humans, the language that we use and the way in which we label our fellows.

And this careful consideration of how we address people is as important in a pharmacy setting as in any part of life, or in any business activity.

A few weeks ago, the AJP ran a poll on the terminology pharmacists use in addressing customers/patients in their pharmacy.

The findings revealed a mixed bag of responses, with around a third saying they addressed them as patients, a quarter saying they used the term customers and just under half saying they used both terms.

The right term

Leading pharmacy business expert Bruce Annabel believes the terminology you use reflects strongly on the perception that consumers will have of your pharmacy.

“In my view, a customer is someone who buys products and/or obtains a dispensing service from a pharmacy, or chemist shop,” he says.

Hence the pharmacy focus is – selling to the customers whole maximising the transaction value via better buying, substituting generics, switching requested OTC medicine brands to private label and discounting via product/price promotions.

“This approach suits the group management offices and banner groups seeking to maximise product throughput and it’s also very easy to implement operationally.”

In contrast, a patient is someone who receives care founded on pharmacist ‘professional service’, a notion which goes much further than dispensing scripts correctly, Mr Annabel says.

“Hence the focus isn’t on the product, or the price, rather it’s all about what can be done by pharmacists to ‘help the patient’.”

The Guild view

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia said customer/patient/consumer were often descriptions of the same person.

“In pharmacy we often refer to people walking in to our pharmacies as patients when they have a clear clinical need or request, and then there are the carers that act on behalf of other patients,” the spokesperson said.

“We sometimes refer to people as customers when they are looking around for non-core pharmacy products and services such as toothpaste or cosmetics or other products that don’t need much advice (batteries/water/Glucojels).”

This differentiation is applied by Victorian Guild president Anthony Tassone and his staff in his own pharmacies, and he believes it is becoming increasingly common to differentiate based upon the degree of clinical involvement in the consult.

Other pharmacies say they adopt a blanket policy of using the term ‘patient’ to support a focus on professional services.

Giving patients a ‘hug of health’

Elise Apolloni, co-owner of 2017 Pharmacy of the Year finalist Capital Chemist Waniassa says they use the word patient in their pharmacy “as we feel some others (i.e. consumer or customer) have a transactional focus”.

“As well, a common phrase heard in healthcare at the moment is ‘patient centred care’. So less about any particular health professional being ‘in charge’ or ‘coordinating’, and more about empowering the patient to receive the healthcare they want by tailoring support and assistance around that individual, which is another reason I use the word ‘patient’,” she says.

However, Ms Apolloni said the word used is probably less important than the experience you give people when they connect with your pharmacy in the first place.

A patient-centric healthcare focus needs to combine and integrate language, attitude and focus, she believes.

“Our vision… is to make a positive impact and support the health of our community and be the most passionate and educated pharmacist health experts in Canberra.

We want anyone that contacts our pharmacy to feel like they receive a ‘hug of health’ from our team”.

“I think this hug of health focus is a win-win-win. Firstly, and most importantly, our patients and community receive the calibre of healthcare they deserve day in, day out. Secondly, our team has very clear expectations, that we created together, around what we want to achieve and how we want our patients to feel when they connect with us. And thirdly, whenever any pharmacy hands out hugs of health consistently (or whatever you want to call it!), wherever in the country that may be, that further strenghens the work that we all do, further cementing the pivotal primary healthcare role pharmacists play every single day!

Making a strategy work

Kim Brotherson, managing director of the Pharmacy 777 group believes the question of whether a pharmacist is interacting with a patient or a customer is, “intimately connected with the business model the pharmacy owners adopt”.

“If the pharmacy is marketing a ‘discount strategy’, they’re inviting conversations regarding the price of medications,” he said, echoing Bruce Annabel’s comments.

Consequently, the pharmacists’ primary patient interaction here relates to price queries or price matching of various products in relation to other discounters.

In contrast, the Pharmacy 777 Group has adopted the philosophy that a “patient” who enters a doctor’s surgery for their appointment does not exit as a ‘customer’ interested in cheap cosmetics, gifts and house hold products, Mr Brotherson said.

“We see our clients as patients, potential patients or carers and want to continue with them on their health care journey. Every prescription must be handed out by a pharmacist focused on ensuring the quality use of medication and positive patient health outcomes.”

“It is also about taking responsibility to address health issues and medication compliance,” he said. “Rather than having conversations on price, we centre our conversations around patient health”.

This approach, linking language to pharmacy culture, impacts all aspects of the pharmacy’s operations and is vital to successfully integrating professional services, he believes.

“As an example, many pharmacists would have “professional” as a key value. However, what does “professional” look like in their store?

Does a pharmacist need to interact with every patient to meet this key value? Is the focus on selling and add-on sales, or is the aim to provide a health outcome to the patient?”

“In many business models, despite there being a pretence of ‘professional’, employees can feel obligated to push or promote products and services primarily to make money rather than provide an outcome,” he said.

“As such, “professional” can have wide variation of interpretation for many businesses”.

Defining this goes a long way to addressing the pharmacist’s approach to patients, Mr Brotherson believes.

A successfully implemented patientcentric business model should still see the bottom line of the pharmacy grow. The key is to get the behaviours right and measure outcomes.

“Many pharmacy owners do not focus on the key elements that they can influence in their stores including the quality and consistency of pharmacist interactions,” Mr Brotherson said.

What do they mean?

Here’s how the Macquarie Dictionary defines the terms in question:

  • Patient—one who is under medical or surgical treatment
  • Customer—one who purchases goods from another. A buyer. A patron.
  • Consumer—one who uses a commodity or service

This article was originally published in the June 2018 print issue of the Australian Journal of Pharmacy.