AJP speaks to the pharmacist who recently had a customer smash a Perspex screen into his face, who says he’s copped more physical and verbal abuse in the past year than he has in 10 years in the profession… and he’s not the only one
Ahmed Ouf, owner at Pharmacy 4 Less Auburn in Sydney’s western suburbs, has called for greater security for community pharmacists working nights as aggression ramps up from some members of the public.
Mr Ouf recently made headlines across mainstream media after footage was published showing the moment an angry customer smashed a sneeze guard into his face. The incident occurred on Monday night.
“It was 11.30pm roughly, and this man came with a prescription for Panadeine, I didn’t see anything wrong in the prescription, it looked legit. He dropped $3 on the counter and said, ‘I’m going to pay only $3’. So I said to him firstly, ‘You have to pay at the front, not at the back, I don’t take money at the back’,” he told AJP.
“He didn’t have a concession card, it’s was a private [script], I said the least I can do is $6.60.
“Immediately he started swearing “f*ck, f*ck”, and exactly three seconds later, the Covid-19 screen was smashed in my face– the guy, he transformed. I didn’t see it coming, I was shocked, you can see [in the video] I didn’t go back, I just stayed where I was,” explained Mr Ouf.
“I was really shocked with the behavior and the attitude of that guy. On his way out, if you notice towards the end, on the right-hand side he used his hand and dropped everything that’s in the oral care section on the floor.
“This has been done by a few customers a few times by the way, whenever they’re not happy that you’re not dispensing or doing whatever they want, if you’re not going to do whatever they ask you to do, there’s no consequences for [that].
“We’ve seen lots of verbal abuse in the past … I feel like in the last 8-9 months we’ve become desensitised to the verbal abuse, it’s like you get used to it to the extent that it becomes part of your daily routine. That anyone can come to the pharmacy and say to you, ‘you are a piece of shit’, anyone can come and swear at you because they want you to sign some papers and you’re busy serving other patients.”
Mr Ouf said that just on Sunday, a different patient verbally abused his pharmacist colleague, after requesting them to sign some papers.
The pharmacist, who is also a Justice of the Peace, agreed to do it but said, “I’ve got a few customers, just give me a few minutes, once I’m done with the patients I’ll do it”.
“The guy waited for five minutes, and it was clear that the pharmacist was really busy, he was just doing his work,” said Mr Ouf. “Then started the verbal abuse. He was on edge that it was going to be a physical confrontation, that affected him badly till the end of the night.
“So it’s a daily routine especially from the beginning of the Covid pandemic, and now it’s becoming physical.
“Another pharmacy from our group in Maroubra used to open till 10pm, and the owner said, ‘no, now I close at 8pm’ because of also physical abuse that he copped a few months ago. He thought, no it’s better we close earlier than opening late and people can just go to the hospitals and deal with the emergency department.
“We can’t continue anymore, especially with that zero protection. So people are tending to decrease [their hours], and I often consider decreasing my hours, because I can’t firstly convince the pharmacist that we have to work at midnight, and also because I fear for my own safety,” said Mr Ouf.
It’s been getting worse since the pandemic started, he added.
“People are becoming more aggressive. I’ve been a pharmacist for 10 years. In the last year, the physical and verbal abuse that we our pharmacy in Auburn copped was more than the physical and verbal abuse that happened in the last 10 years.
“The vast majority of our customers are really good, I can see the trust they have in the profession and in the pharmacist, it’s something of value. But this minority, we should make sure that they pay for what they do, the wrong that they do.”
It’s like you get used to it to the extent that it becomes part of your daily routine… that anyone can come to the pharmacy and say to you, ‘you are a piece of shit’
PDL Professional Officer John Guy said he’s seen the same pattern of aggression towards pharmacists ramping up.
“We’re seeing that kind of situation all the time, where pharmacists are not being respected, abused,” he told AJP.
“I think the lack of respect is just growing, pharmacists aren’t respected like they used to be.
“[Customers] yell and swear and use dreadful language. They should be spoken to gently saying ‘look, that’s not appropriate, that behaviour, please cease that or you’ll be asked to leave. And if you don’t the police will be called’,” said Mr Guy.
“And [the police] should be called if there’s aggressive and rude customers like that. They become a danger to your staff and other members of the public, you don’t want people ranting and raving, and sweeping items off the shelf etc.”
Unfortunately, the police did not respond immediately to Mr Ouf’s request for help.
He and a colleague notified the police as soon as the incident occurred, and requested for a police officer to attend the scene – Mr Ouf was closing at midnight and his colleague was afraid the man might be waiting for him outside the store.
“No one came,” said Mr Ouf. The next day, up until midday, he still hadn’t heard anything.
“No one called me, no one came to the pharmacy—even though the police station is exactly two minutes’ walk from my pharmacy. So I went to the police station, I made a statement.”
He said he eventually received an apology from the head of Auburn police for not immediately attending the scene, but only after the media had started to widely report the incident.
On Thursday, a NSW Police spokesperson confirmed to AJP that there was an active investigation underway, but gave no details on why the police did not attend the scene initially.
“About 11.30pm (Monday 19 October 2020), officers from Auburn Police Area Command received reports a customer was acting aggressively towards a pharmacist at a pharmacy on Auburn Road, Auburn,” said NSW Police.
“Police have been told the man pushed a safety screen onto the pharmacist, before leaving the store. No one was injured during the incident.”
Following inquiries, Auburn police arrested a 40-year-old man at a home on Zillah Street, Merrylands about 12pm on Friday 23 October 2020.
He was taken to Auburn Police Station where he was charged with common assault and destroy or damage property.
Mr Guy said the scenario where police don’t attend immediately is generally the exception, not the rule.
“If the police don’t come, and he was fearful for going to his car I read, I think that’s an exception. The police are usually pretty good, they often attend fairly quickly. He’s got every right to complain to the police about that sort of service, but generally the police do come,” he told AJP.
“The police are the first call to have these people removed from the pharmacy. We’ve had a lot of cases where the police come and interview the person outside the pharmacy.
“If necessary they’ll enforce a ban that the pharmacist institutes, the pharmacy may say to someone who is repeatedly rude and aggressive –‘you’re not welcome in this pharmacy anymore. The police will be called if you step foot inside the door’ and they do call them and have them removed.”
PDL Professional Officer Georgina Woods added: “If you do feel threatened or frightened in any way, you’re well within your rights to ring the police or contact security for assistance, because there are unacceptable behaviours.
We have to call patients out on this from time to time which is unfortunate, but if you’re not feeling safe, call the police.
Mr Ouf said he believes that the state government should fund all the medical centres and pharmacies that are open after 10pm to get a security guard, to protect the staff who are on duty.
“We take some of the heat and pressure from our emergency departments by opening after 10pm,” he said.
“Between 10pm and 12am, it’s not the time where we get regular customers or patients that you have with blood pressure or blood sugar checks. It’s always emergencies – someone who needs the emergency pill, someone whose kid is vomiting or has got diarrhoea, feverish and the majority of the time you can help. You do a big big big service to the community at that time.
“So if you have a pharmacist that takes some of that pressure, can solve the minor disease and injuries, that helps the doctors and the healthcare system to cope with the pressure. So we should be protected.”
His message to the police is: “Pharmacists are first line health professionals – respond, help them. They’ve got medicines and drugs of addiction, and when they call you, it’s because they really need your help, because they’re really afraid for their safety.”
This article was updated on 26 October to add that a man has now been charged over the incident.
Pharmacists can contact the Pharmacists Support Service on 1300 244 910 for peer support related to the demands of being a pharmacist in Australia.
Members can call PDL on 1300 854 838 for support from a Professional Officer.