The importance of saying sorry

Notice Director of elections to the PDL board Aug 20

Sooner or later most pharmacists can expect to be presented with a complaint. 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.

To provide some guidance on what to do (and what not to do) when dealing with a customer’s complaint Meridian Lawyers, has prepared the following advice:

Incident Management

When dealing with a complaint, no matter how trivial, time is of the essence. An irate customer who does not receive a prompt response may feel ignored and is more likely to escalate the complaint. To help avoid such an outcome, the following steps are recommended:

  • Ensure that you or another senior person (such as a practice owner) handle the complaint. This should convey the message 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.
  • Do not offer compensation or mention your insurance cover. This may encourage further pursuit of a claim. Rather, 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.
  • Notify PDL and your professional indemnity insurer of the incident, even if a formal claim has not been made. PDL and Guild Insurance will usually retain Meridian Lawyers and a solicitor will contact you to discuss an appropriate strategy.

Should you say sorry?

If it is obvious that an error has occurred, in most situations it is appropriate to apologise. Whilst there has been a historical reluctance to offer an apology on the basis it may be misconstrued as an admission of fault, legislative reform has confirmed that an apology is not an admission of liability. For example, the NSW Civil Liability Act, 2002 provides that an apology does not constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability. To remove any doubt, the Act provides that evidence of an apology is not admissible in civil proceedings. Similar provisions exist in other States and Territories.

The effect of an apology should not be under estimated. It is the experience of Meridian Lawyers that a customer feels wronged and wants acknowledgment. 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.

Apologies in practice

Assume a customer arrives at the pharmacy complaining of feeling unwell after consuming medication that had been incorrectly dispensed by the pharmacy.

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.

Customers/claimants frequently state that if, following an investigation of the claim, the person had simply apologised for the error, they would not have complained further.

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.

This article was written by Kellie Dell’Oro, Principal of Meridian Lawyers.

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