Not all staff working in a general practice dispensary consider themselves to have 'customers' - they think of customers as people buying goods in shops, rather than patients receiving NHS medications.
There are, however, two definitions of a customer: the first is 'a person who purchases goods or services from another' and the second, less formal, definition is 'a person one has to deal with'.
Both definitions are applicable to dispensaries, which are increasingly having to boost customer care to compete with the services provided by retail pharmacies.
In fact, dispensaries have two sets of customers: internal and external:
- Internal customers are those also working within the GP practice, for example, the GPs, practice nurses, healthcare assistants, receptionists and other support staff.
- External customers are patients (or their representatives), medical representatives, wholesalers or other suppliers, and anyone else that is not employed by the practice.
The GP with responsibility for dispensing (or the practice manager) should clarify the partners' expectations regarding 'customer service' and the different types of 'customer' they might encounter, from the nursing staff to the patients.
Practices should have clearly-defined customer care policies and complaints procedures, ensuring that dispensing staff understand these policies and why they must be followed.
Dispensing staff should be able to describe their role in customer service provision and the organisational complaints procedure.
They need to know how to deal with difficult patients and where to go for back up. Usually, the practice manager will deal with official complaints but if they are absent, staff must know who to approach.
One issue is the difference between 'awkward' patients and those who are being 'difficult' because they are nervous about their medication, or confused by the dispensing process.
Some patients might have a physical or mental health condition that hinders communication; elderly patients or anyone with poor sight or hearing may need help explaining their needs and careful explanations about what has been dispensed.
Others might simply be difficult, demanding or angry, asking dispensers to make decisions they are not empowered to make, invading personal space and even becoming threatening.
Dispensers should know when to stand firm or when to give in and must know the whereabouts of the panic alarm. They must deal with conflict, difficult working relationships and stressful situations.
Learning to assess patients' needs is a vital skill, for example, highlighting appropriate services such as the provision of dosette boxes or monthly delivery repeat items.
For some patients, privacy will be required so dispensers will need to take patients to a separate area, away from the dispensary, so that the patient can explain a problem or receive personal advice. The dispensing hatch may simply prove a barrier to effective communication with some patients.
Dispensing staff should be provided with practice leaflets and any other information they might need to know about dispensary services and the practice's other services.
Patients will not always differentiate between the practice and dispensary and may expect staff to answer a range of questions not directly related to their job.
However, dispensing staff must recognise the limits and boundaries of their role.
Good written and verbal communication skills are vital for dispensary staff, including a polite telephone manner. They must be clear and accurate when imparting information, whether this is face-to-face, by phone or by email. It is vital to check patients' understanding of what they have been told.
Staff also need to develop skills in non-verbal communication, learning to understand patients' body language, facial expressions and they should be aware of barriers to effective communication.
Ultimately, dispensing staff represent the practice like the other members of the practice team. Their role involves developing and maintaining relationships with patients, in order to meet patient needs and retain their loyalty in the face of competition from retail pharmacies.
A polite, knowledgeable and confident manner will give patients confidence in the dispensing function and in the practice as a whole.
- Annette Arthur is a consultant for dispensing practices