Strategies for managing conflict


angry customer patient pharmacist pharmacy

PDL’s Gary West offers some ways to help manage conflict, in increasingly difficult times

At APP2020 Online on the Gold Coast, PDL Professional Officer spoke about the increasing problem of conflict, complaints and abuse directed towards pharmacists and pharmacy assistants… which are only growing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Mr West suggested pharmacists avail themselves of the Pharmacists’ Support Service resource Managing Stress in Pharmacy, which opens with the “prescient” line: “Pharmacy practice can be profoundly satisfying. But it can also be extremely stressful. This may be more so in an environment of change when there are often concerns that events are outside of your control.”

It’s important to remember that in any situation, the only person’s actions we have control over are our own, Mr West said.

Strategies include staying calm, active listening, apology, using empathy and building rapport.

“It’s easy to say it than to do it, but still, stay calm,” Mr West said. “Don’t buy into the conflict; try to remain professional yet unemotional. Often it’s not about the pharmacist, it’s about the outcome.”

He said that often people just want to say their piece, and that if a pharmacist can indicate that they are actively listening, this can help; a simple apology is often all that is needed, and Mr West also pointed out that under Australian legislation an apology is not an admission of liability.

Statements like “I can understand why you’re upset,” show empathy and can indicate that a pharmacist is prepared to listen.

He said that it’s important for pharmacists to look after their own health.

“We’re talking to lots of pharmacists who are working really hard who are already exhausted and you need to be thinking about getting some rest, getting some sleep,” he said, even taking small breaks during the workday, as it is easier to help unhappy customers with a clear head.

Mr West recommended that pharmacists gain an understanding of their own personality, perhaps investigating online tools such as personality typing tests to recognise how they tend to respond to conflict, and what their default response to conflict might be.

This understanding also applies to others, including the difficult patient.

“You also need to think, obviously, about the person in front of you, and try to understand why are they upset? Why are they behaving this way?”

For example, some patients may simply have a communication style which is always very blunt and direct; pharmacists need to understand not to take this abrasive style personally, as the person may intend no malice at all.

“Particularly at the moment, empathy is so important,” Mr West said. “Taking a bit of time to talk to these people to hear them out to understand what their concern is… can sometimes help just de-escalate the situation. They still might not get what they want, but they understand that you’re willing to do your best to understand their position.”

Conflict with prescribers has been growing, Mr West told delegates – “we’re seeing this more and more”.

“Obviously it’s a very fine balance between the duty of care that we have to our patients, and our independent responsibilities as a registered health practitioner. That’s being balanced against the expectations of the prescriber that they’re in charge of the patient’s care, and they believe these prescriptions are valid and ought to be dispensed.

“We’d always encourage pharmacists, if you have to have a difficult conversation with a prescriber, to make it about the wellbeing of the patient.

“It’s not about the prescriber. It’s not about the prescribing per se, it’s about your concerns for the wellbeing of the patient and/or your legal obligations.”

He said that in these cases, as with other cases of conflict, it is very important to document the interaction, as in the unlikely instance that the regulator does become involved, it will probably ask to see documentation.

Mr West also said that it is part of indemnity insurance policy requirements to report any conflict to the insurer, adding that seeking help from PDL can often help prevent escalation of a problem.

For immediate advice and incident support, members can call PDL on 1300 854 838 to speak with a Professional Officers. PDL is available to support its pharmacist members 24/7, Australia-wide.

Pharmacists can also contact the Pharmacists Support Service on 1300 244 910 for peer support related to the demands of being a pharmacist in Australia during this challenging time.

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