How can you de-escalate strong emotions in pharmacy? Advice from the experts


Pharmacists are among the most accessible health care professionals, having many patient interactions per day, and this can sometimes leave them exposed to anger and aggression 

Most interactions are pleasant and enjoyable, but at some stage in a pharmacist’s career there will be a challenging experience – and patients’ strong emotions like anger and aggression can stay with us long after the episode.   

This webinar event, held by the AJP in December 2020 in partnership with PDL and the Pharmacists’ Support Service, provides substantial, well-received information and advice on how to manage these situations.  

PDL Professional Officer and practising pharmacist Georgina Woods took participants through how to ensure a safe working environment, including:  

  • All staff have the right to feel safe in their work environment 
  • Be prepared – you will have difficult conversations 
  • There may be times when you feel threatened or uncomfortable 
  • If you have concerns for safety of yourself, staff or patients, you have the right to contact security staff or police 

Ms Woods told webinar attendees that a charter of rights and responsibilities, developed in conjunction with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, can be found on the PDL website 
It can be displayed in pharmacy, and while this type of signage may not prevent poor behaviour, it demonstrates the pharmacy’s expectationsand the rights of public and staff when in pharmacy, and shows support for your staff 

Communicating with the angry patient 

Ms Woods shared some strategies that may assist with de-escalating an angry patient (with the caveat that they may not always work!) 

  • Keep calm* 
  • Take the patient aside, a private area is best 
  • Introduce yourself, explain that you wish to hear what they have to say 
  • Actively listen without interruption, use empathy and try and understand how they might be feeling 
  • Ask if you can now speak, and discuss the issues raised, attempt to find a solution to the problem 
  • Apologise as needed and build rapport 

(*Kay Dunkley, Executive Officer of PSS, offers these tips on keeping calm under pressure: ‘Take some slow deep breaths in order to slow your heart rate while listening to the customer. Pause before responding and speak slowly and in a moderate voice. Remind yourself  that although the customer may express frustration and anger this is not about you but rather about the situation they find themselves in.’)

Ms Woods advised attendees to develop and use their own phrases to suit their own communication style, and – crucially – to keep in mind there are often factors leading up to the event that they cannot control.

Know and understand the legislation 

If you understand the legislation wherever you practisethen you can use that knowledge to explain non-fulfilment of patients’ requests – and stay within the legislative parameters. Some key phrases that may be helpful include: 

The legislation does not allow me to dispense this prescription 

‘I understand this is not your fault however I am still unable to dispense this prescription until it is amended by the prescriber  

What to do next 

Ms Woods said that regardless of the outcome, several important actions pharmacists should perform after a confronting situation include: 

  • Document the incident 
  • Debrief with proprietor, management and team 
  • Report to professional indemnity insurer (there is no penalty for reporting) 
  • Self-reflect  
  • Implement changes if required 
  • Reach out for support if needed (see end of article for PDL and PSS contact details) 

PDL Professional Officer and pharmacist Gary West summarised PDL’s presentation, starting with the reminder that ‘It is likely that you will be faced with a challenging situation at some stage in your career’. Other key points include: 

  • Understand you are unable to control anyone except yourself 
  • Remain calm – always! 
  • Think about your communication when dealing with an aggressive patient – body language, voice, language 
  • Actively listen with empathy and attempt to build rapport 
  • Seek assistance if needed  
  • Learn from others and yourself 

The PDL Professional Officers, together with Kay Dunkley, went on to consider three different scenarios and gave suggestions on how to deal with themThese involved patients who were respectively impatient and in a hurry, disrespectful and misogynistic, and patronising and distressed.   

For responses to these scenarios and also to questions from webinar attendees, watch the full one-hour webinar here 

REGISTERED AJP.COM.AU USERS CAN EARN 2 GROUP TWO CPD CREDITS AFTER WATCHING THIS WEBINAR, BY COMPLETING THE ASSOCIATED ASSESSMENT here 

Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS): 1300 244 910 | https://www.supportforpharmacists.org.au/ | Support for pharmacists by pharmacists, 8am to 11pm daily. 

PDL: 1300 854 838 | https://www.pdl.org.au/ 24/7 incident support, Australia-wide 

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