‘The intent of the complaint is to cause harm or distress.’


What is a vexatious complaint, who makes them and what should pharmacists do if they’re on the receiving end?

Notifications against health practitioners including pharmacists are rising, and some of these include vexatious notifications or complaints.

PDL professional officer and pharmacist Gary West says analysis suggests the reasons for the rise in notifications are multifactorial.

“It’s not that pharmacists are necessarily making more mistakes, but it’s often related to greater propensity for the public to complain or have an expectation of a certain level of service,” says Mr West.

“These days the process of making a complaint is relatively easy and it’s also online, so often there’s no mention of the patient’s displeasure directly to the pharmacy. The first thing the pharmacist knows is they’re getting a notification that they’re having to respond to.”

Meanwhile the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) has released a new podcast called Taking Care, which has specifically covered the topic of vexatious notifications.

“We know that being the subject of a notification is often very stressful for a practitioner. While the numbers are small, we recognise that the impact of a vexatious notification is very significant for the practitioner,” says AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher

Dr Marie Bismark, a public health physician and health lawyer who leads the Law and Public Health Group at the University of Melbourne, explains on the podcast that there are two elements to a vexatious notification.

“The first element is that it’s groundless, so there’s no real foundation to the complaint,” says Dr Bismark.

“The second part is that it’s made with the intent of causing distress or harm to the health practitioner.”

A pharmacist who is the subject of a vexatious notification should not panic because if a complaint has no substance, the regulators will close the matter.—John Guy, PDL

Dr Bismark says where a complaint is truly vexatious, it’s often a situation where there has been a pre-existing relationship between the two parties.

“I’m aware of some situations where complaints or notifications to AHPRA have been used as part of a pattern of intimate partner violence where there has been domestic violence or abuse,” she says.

“There are also suggestions where there have been some situations where there has been a breakdown in the relationship between two health practitioners who have previously worked together.”

John Guy, professional officer at PDL, says a vexatious complaint made to a pharmacy regulator often comes as a total surprise to a pharmacist.

“These complaints are often made by a customer who wishes to ‘punish’ a pharmacist when they perceive they have been treated unfairly or could not get their own way,” says Mr Guy.

“The perception of these complainants is often totally wrong as they incite pharmacists to ignore regulations to satisfy their demands.”

Mr Guy provides two cases of vexatious complaints that PDL has recently handled.

CASE STUDY 1:

We had a vexatious report lodged where a pharmacist notified the police that a customer was stalking a young female pharmacy assistant. The police warned the customer not to attend the pharmacy.

In retribution, this customer then lodged a complaint with AHPRA alleging that the pharmacist was unprofessional and unhelpful (which was untrue).

CASE STUDY 2:
PDL assisted a pharmacist who was the subject of an unfounded and vexatious notification to a regulator. A consumer had requested a procedure from a pharmacy program that was recorded in GuildCare. As this consumer refused to give her name (for entry into the system and for follow-up if needed) the service was not provided. This consumer then filed a complaint claiming that her privacy was breached.

“If a vexatious complaint is made to a pharmacy regulator and that pharmacist receives a notification—a formal request for a reply and explanation—the pharmacist should contact PDL for assistance,” says Mr Guy.

“Do not attempt to answer without help from PDL and their legal advisors.

“A pharmacist who is the subject of a vexatious notification should not panic because if a complaint has no substance, the regulators will close the matter,” he reassures pharmacists.

Matthew Hardy, national director of notifications for AHPRA, says the only way the organisation can find out whether a complaint is or isn’t vexatious is to investigate it.

“That in itself causes distress for practitioners because we understand that practitioners do attach being investigated by the regulator with a significant amount of stress,” he says.

“We would look for whether there is any evidence of an apparent or reported conflict between the parties. We’d ask whether the notification was lodged during the course of legal proceedings,” says Mr Hardy.

“We’d look at whether there was any evidence of a pre-existing relationship between the notifier and the practitioner that’s actually broken down.

“We’d take a look at whether there’s any evidence of a personal or professional competitiveness in that space, and we’d look at whether there are any examples of unreasonable complaints and conduct.”

Listen to the full AHPRA podcast here

You may be interested in reading:

Are people becoming ‘increasingly litigious’?

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