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How to take the heat out of verbal abuse!

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A communication strategy outlining why codeine is being upscheduled is essential for customers and staff, writes Natanya McLenaghan*

How many of you have had a stressful, uncomfortable confrontation with a customer who has verbally abused them? Well let’s be honest, with the new codeine laws fast approaching, it’s only about to get worse, not to mention codeine shopping—if pharmacies are not using MedsASSIST.

I had a situation recently in which the customer became verbally abusive after she was denied the sale of her codeine, which required security intervention. This, remember, is while codeine is available; and I can see these situations becoming worse in the upcoming months as customers try stock up before the new laws come into play . 

It’s imperative that we inform customers of the change now and present them with alternative treatments so they can begin thinking about their pain management options. As they say, forewarned is forearmed–we want to prevent those unwanted interactions and encourage positive ones.

We want this not just for customers, but for the benefit of the pharmacy assistant as well, who is facing the questioning, verbally abusive, unhappy customer. We want to feel safe and comfortable in our jobs and to be able to handle these situations as best as we can. 

First, we need training and knowledge so that the transition to the new arrangements is as smooth as possible. As staff, we also need to feel confident to talk to our customers about what’s happening to codeine, and to be able to suggest alternatives with confidence and skill. Part of this requires all staff being on the same page. Therefore, you need to have a meeting now to discuss what your pharmacy is going to do, and how you are going to implement your chosen strategy.

Also, invite industry representatives into your store to talk about codeine alternatives they supply and what benefit they have for the customer. In addition, get staff to undertake online training as this is a very cost-effective and efficient way to increase your product knowledge, including your understanding of combination therapies.


Recently, I was involved in the Queensland Pharmacy Assistant of the Year judging workshop. Part of it included networking with other pharmacy assistants and the ‘hot’ topic of codeine was discussed. Clare Stone, the Queensland winner, talked about how they are approaching it in her pharmacy. She described how they have listed all the types of pain they see in pharmacy (within the scope of pharmacy staff) and how a list is kept at the back counter of alternative products that can be recommended, which all staff can refer to.

Another strategy is to conduct ‘role-plays’ so that staff know how to deal with even unpleasant scenarios in a professional and calm manner.

Good signage can also be utilised. Signage is a useful and non-confrontational way of creating awareness of an issue; and encourages the customer to ask questions about it; and how it might have an impact on them.

I also recommend running pain management clinics, which include lifestyle strategies on ways to manage pain, such as exercise, as well as providing information on pain management support groups in your local area.

By undertaking all of the above strategies, we have a greater chance of helping our customers handle the scheduling change with the least amount of pain all round—for the customer, for the pharmacy and for the public health system.

However, time is not on your side—so act now!

*Natanya is the 2016 Pharmacy Assistant of the Year. 

She will be speaking about her experience as this year’s Pharmacy Assistant National Conference, which takes place 26-28 October, Gold Coast.

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