The importance of saying sorry

PDL has issued guidance on how, and whether, a pharmacist should apologise to an unhappy patient

“Sooner or later most pharmacists can expect to be presented with a complaint,” PDL says.

“Even the pettiest disputes over a price for medication, can become protracted, particularly if it is referred to a regulatory organisation such as the Health Complaints Commission or the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.”

PDL offered members advice from Meridian Lawyers’ Kellie Dell’Oro, who said that no matter how trivial a complaint, it’s important that it be dealt with promptly.

“An irate customer who does not receive a prompt response may feel ignored and is more likely to escalate the complaint,” Ms Dell’Oro wrote.

She suggests that “you or another senior person (such as a practice owner) handle the complaint, as this gives the impression that the complaint is being taken seriously.

“Contact the customer as soon as possible. Make it clear that the grievance concerns you and listen. It is important to remain calm but firm – there is no point getting involved in a slanging match, but neither should you put up with abuse.

“Hopefully the customer will feel better for venting their feelings and you will have gathered further information.”

But don’t offer compensation or mention the topic of insurance cover, she warns, as this could encourage pursuit of a claim.

Instead, “inform the customer that you will investigate the matter and provide a response as soon as possible. This will buy you time to obtain professional advice.”

Pharmacists should also get in touch with PDL and their professional indemnity insurer, even if a formal claim has not been made.

As for apologising, it’s often assumed that any apology may be mistaken as an admission of fault, but Ms Dell’Oro points out that thanks to legislative reform, it’s not actually an admission of liability.

If it’s obvious that an error has occurred, it’s usually appropriate to apologise, she writes.

In Meridian Lawyers’ experience, the effect of an apology should not be underestimated, and most customers want acknowledgement that they feel wronged.

“If ignored the customer may take matters further and notify regulatory bodies such as the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. Furthermore, regulatory bodies usually frequently place weight on an apology having been given, when determining the outcome of a disciplinary matter.”

Ms Dell’Oro gives a case study where a customer comes into a pharmacy, complaining of feeling unwell after taking a medication which had been incorrectly dispensed there.

“Even if, at this early stage, the cause of her unwellness remains unclear, in the circumstances where concern has been expressed, it would still be appropriate for you or another senior person at the pharmacy, to contact the customer and inform the customer that you are sorry she is ill.

“As a guide, the following could be said: ‘I am sorry to hear you are unwell. I will investigate the matter you have raised and review what happened. I will get back to you as soon as I can but in the meantime I am concerned about your health. Would it be ok to contact you later this week to find out how you are?’

“By communicating in this way you have acknowledged the complaint, indicated that it will be investigated and shown sympathy without making an admission of liability.”

Unhappy customers often say, after a claim has been pursued, that if the person they spoke to had simply apologised, they would not have taken further action.

“In addition to an apology, it can often be helpful for you to explain why the error occurred and what steps had been taken to avoid a recurrence. Very often we hear a claimant say that they were motivated to take the matter further because of concern the error could reoccur and someone else would be injured. 

“Customers need to know that their complaints are recognised and taken seriously. A prompt response and an apology without admission of liability can go a long way towards averting an expensive and potentially reputation damaging claims.”

Pharmacists can contact PDL here.

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