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Smashed doors, spitting and shouting: Patient abuse of pharmacy teams

One patient smashed a pharmacy window in London after being asked to queue outside
One patient smashed a pharmacy window in London after being asked to queue outside

Pharmacy teams reveal escalating levels of abuse from patients during the COVID-19 outbreak

Pharmacy professionals across the UK have been fighting to handle the massive increase in demand for medicines and other healthcare products in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Service has been reshaped over the past couple of weeks as pharmacies do their best to stay open despite immense pressure.

As if this stress was not enough, some pharmacy teams have also been reporting an increase in abuse from patients, with a minority of people lashing out.

Reports of abuse even led the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to release a statement this month saying there had been an “increasing number of reports that pharmacy staff are experiencing abuse, disorder and even violence at the hands of some members of the public they are trying to help”.

The problem is widespread. Almost half of the pharmacies in North Yorkshire (44%) have dealt with abusive patients recently, according to a March survey of 152 businesses by Community Pharmacy North Yorkshire local pharmaceutical committee (LPC).

The LPC’s chair Jack Davies says the abuse is a result of unprecedented demand for medicines as a result of the pandemic. He heard one story of patients spitting and coughing at pharmacy teams. In another case, a patient threw a pen at a staff member over the counter because they were out of Night Nurse. “We’re living in frightening times,” he says.

One LPC member in Skipton says: “The abuse I’ve received from the general public has been disgraceful. We’re working long hours with no breaks, we’re on the front line with the phone ringing constantly.

“I’ve been a pharmacist for around eight years and today was the single worst day I’ve had in my professional career.”

However, Mr Davies stresses that the vast majority of patients are sympathetic, with only a few causing problems, and he has not heard of the abuse ever coming to blows.

Threatening behaviour

Measures to keep patients two metres apart are having an inflammatory effect in some pharmacies. One contractor in London, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “A patient threatened to physically assault a staff member of ours only because he told them to wait outside, as we were limiting the number of customers in the store.

“He verbally abused everyone and, after leaving, completely smashed our front door.”

One pharmacist who works near Newcastle said they had received reported verbal abuse from patients who don’t want to wait to maintain social distancing. “They want to be able to skip the queue like they have a fast pass – like Disneyland.”

Leyla Hannbeck, Association of Independent Multiples chief executive, explains that a few people were reacting badly to the COVID-19 conditions.

“We’ve had people going into pharmacies and taking vitamins tablets and throwing them at staff, calling [them] abusive language and threatening some in relation to controlled drugs. Staff have been threatened that after work they will be attacked and had to call the police.

“Patients are nervous about being isolated and asked not to leave their homes, they’re worried about running out of medicines which is bringing things out of people. It leads to unreasonable behaviour.”

Ms Hannbeck said she had reported the issue to NHS England. “This is completely unacceptable,” she says.

She was keen to stress that these patients are in the minority and that most are understanding of the pressure teams are under, showing their gratitude for pharmacy service with gifts of cakes and chocolates.

Behaviour ‘unacceptable’

A similar zero-tolerance approach has been taken by Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland, which says any abuse of its teams is “completely unacceptable”.

“There has been a high surge in demand for medicines, with some pharmacies seeing four times the number of patients than normal,” the organisation says. “What is needed during this period is calm heads.”

Independent pharmacy support group Avicenna has warned patients against attacking pharmacy staff on a poster it is distributing to members.

Avicenna chair Salim Jetha says a few people are being abusive because they can’t get hold of their medicine. However, “a lot of people are really thankful” for pharmacies, too, he adds.

Hemant Patel, the secretary for north-east London LPC, says the strain on medicine deliveries is another factor upsetting patients. Two contractors in his region reported that patients had not understood why it was more difficult to deliver medicines following the COVID-19 outbreak, Mr Patel says.

Rule breakers

Usmaan Hafiz, pharmacist at Kepple Lane Pharmacy in Preston, says he’s encountered “shouting over the phone” from patients who threaten to take their prescriptions elsewhere. Others refuse to abide by the two-metre social distancing rule and barge past the queue outside into the pharmacy, he says.

Mr Hafiz was surprised that a few patients did not have more understanding of the pressure pharmacy teams are under due to COVID-19.

Alice McCloskey, clinical pharmacy lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, has been helping out part-time in pharmacies following the virus pandemic. She has also heard of people disobeying social distancing rules and being “quite aggressive” verbally.

A few patients have been angered by the supply problems that have arisen following COVID-19 outbreak with items including paracetamol and hand gel, Ms McCloskey says.

As pharmacy teams continue to face anxious patients looking to acquire their medicines despite a raging pandemic, tempers will continue to fray. An increased public awareness of the pressures that teams are under is crucial to reducing unacceptable abuse.

Have you been abused by a patient?

Stephanie Burns, Community pharmacist

A very delightful customer has insulted and abused 2 pharmacy  assistants, one in store and one on the phone, before I had the pleasure of being called a f****** idiot I should f*** myself because his doctor would only supply 4 sildenafil on a 56 day prescription of life saving medication. I said that he needs to re-order it for the 2nd month. He said that it is our job to do it and gave me the really graphic description and helpful suggestion of my next action before slamming the phone down.

Needless to say, a letter has been sent with our suggestion for him to find another pharmacy to dispense his future prescriptions. Such uncouth behaviour to 3 people in the space of 30 minutes, trying to help, deserves this response!!

I work for a large multiple and the area manager was appalled at our experience and has written the letter.

Matthew Edwards, Community pharmacist

Whilst we have had a few irritated customers due to the social distancing policy etc we have seen no such behaviour.  In fact quite the opposite we have recieved snacks, chocolate and even full meals from customers who have been more supportive than ever before.  I think this has been mainly as a reaction to the "closed door" policies of the local surgeries so the population in general has been most appreciative that they can access medical knowledge and information, most have been amazed we are coping well and have been generous to us


Leon The Apothecary, Student

I've had to make three reports of assault to the police so far. I have even been challenged by colleagues in regards to making these reports. Saying we have a zero-tolerance approach, in my opinion, should mean we have a zero-tolerance approach.

I have had one of the larger chains try to reprimand me in regards to this before. But, I have never been one to back down from something I believe to be morally unjust. The feeling of being pressured to leave things alone, just because it's easier, or the risk of losing a patient to another business is...horrible. 

Benie Locum, Locum pharmacist

Pharmacists are partially to blame. Years and years of acting like a doormat. Obviously the first time you're unable to deliver due to unforseen circumstances this is what you'll get. 

Paul Dishman, Pharmaceutical Adviser

Taser the trouble-makers. That'll sort 'em.

Kevin Western, Community pharmacist

All this is down to a complete abrogation of responsibility by GPs who have dumped a month's worth of scripts on us in less than 2 weeks.
For years they have made the assertion that only they can control prescribing and medications as only they are professional enough and have the knowledge
This last two weeks has blown that out of the water with willy nilly repeating of scripts and issuing inhalers to all and sundry with no checks at all
This has almost certainly caused patient harm due to the workload on pharmacies, Has brought the profession of Pharmacy almost to its knees and broken the medicines supply chain
Do we hear any censure if GPs locked away safe behind a wall of staff and phone lines....
Not on your life

A Long Serving Pharmacist, Community pharmacist

I was called 'f***ing c**t b***ch because we had no hand gel or paracetamol. Also someone wiped her hands all over the counter and tried to grab the face of a member of staff when asked to put her scripts down on the counter and step back. I am now scared of the public, even though most have been understanding and appreciative. 

Leon The Apothecary, Student

I hope your colleague is alright, and that individual who conducted themselves in that way is rightly reported to the police.

A.S. Singh, Community pharmacist

Most of our patients have been understanding. I feel for you. We never had the recognition from the government. Even today michael gove promised everyone but us covid 19 screen kits. Only bit of postivity was the clapping at 20.00  yesterday. Duncan needs a real kick up the backside if he wants to punish pharmacists for increased paracetamol prices. We need to stand together on this. 

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