Understanding disciplinary processes

What is expected of the accused on notification of alleged unprofessional conduct?

Pharmacists, owners and pharmacy support personnel are required to at all times ensure that they observe the law and are ethical in their exercising their various scopes of practice; this includes observing the Rules relating to Good Pharmacy Practice and the Ethical Rules. However, should mistakes happen or the law be ignored, Council may, in terms of Chapter V of the Pharmacy Act, 53 of 1974, investigate and institute a disciplinary process – in order to protect and/or restore the dignity of the profession and the rights of the public.

What is expected of the accused on notification of alleged unprofessional conduct?

In terms of Section 39 of the Pharmacy Act, 53 of 1974, the South African Pharmacy Council has the power to enquire into any matter which is brought to its attention or any complaint, charge or allegation of improper or disgraceful conduct against any person registered in terms of the Pharmacy Act. While mistakes may happen, unprofessional conduct is unacceptable as it may endanger the lives of patients and put the profession into disrepute.

What happens when you, a pharmacy professional, make a mistake or act unprofessionally at work? This article details the process followed when either a complaint is lodged by a member of the public or unprofessional conduct is brought to the attention of the SAPC by a Council Officer, following an inspection.

What you are expected to do when a complaint is lodged against your conduct

If a complainant (be they patient, caregiver or other concerned person) lodges a complaint against you (“respondent”) to the Office of Council, Council will process the complaint, and subsequently, conduct its investigation to establish if prima facie evidence exists to warrant further action on the complaint. In terms of Section 39 of the Pharmacy Act, 53 of 1974, the Council is obligated to investigate every complaint received, no matter how frivolous it may seem.

In terms of Regulation 3(2), if the Registrar believes that the complaint received constitutes prima facie proof of unprofessional conduct, they will inform the respondent in writing of the nature of the complaint, providing any information available concerning the complaint, and request the respondent to respond, before a date determined by the Registrar. The Registrar will also inform the respondent that his or her written response and reasons may be used as evidence at any subsequent informal or formal inquiry. The respondent is then expected to respond in writing to the complaint and give reasons why he or she believes that the complaint does not constitute unprofessional conduct.

Following the receipt of the response and consideration of the reasons provided, the Registrar may either determine that the matter should not be investigated and/or pursued, or s/he may determine that the matter requires further enquiry and recommend such to the Committee of Preliminary Investigation.

Choosing not to respond

As a respondent, you may choose not to provide the Registrar with reasons against the complaint/allegation. Respondents who choose to exercise such right are not prejudiced in the process – however, it is important to note that when the Committee of Preliminary Investigation reviews the matter, they make a recommendation based on the evidence they have been provided with.

The Committee may decide to not pursue the matter if it is convinced that no evidence of unprofessional conduct exists, and inform both the complainant and respondent of its decision. Or it may determine that further informal or formal enquiry is necessary, and notify the respondent accordingly. The respondent would then ensure that they appear before the Committee of Informal Inquiry or Committee of Formal Inquiry on a date set by either Committee.

Deciding to respond

What if you choose to provide the Registrar with reasons as to why you think the complaint/allegation against you does not constitute unprofessional conduct? It is this decision by respondents that has prompted the Disciplinary Committees of Council to appeal to respondents who provide such explanations, to do so as detailed and comprehensively as possible.

Why your response should be detailed and comprehensive?

In the event that a respondent does have good reason to believe the complaint/allegation does not amount to unprofessional conduct, providing such defence in detail with supporting evidence may result in the matter being disposed of with no further action being taken, provided that such response shows that no unprofessional conduct may have taken place.

In cases where unprofessional conduct may have not taken place, taking the time and carefully drafting a detailed response, including documentary and, where relevant, photographic evidence, a respondent may save themselves the time and cost of appearing in front of the Committee of Informal Inquiry or the Committee of Formal Inquiry.

What to do if you decide to provide reasons?

  1. Read the letter which details the complaint/allegation carefully.
  2. If you do not understand the contents of the letter, contact the Professional Conduct Department in the Office of the Registrar and ask for more details.
  3. Provide your response in a manner that is comprehensive and worded in a way that enables someone with little or no knowledge of the facts to understand what you are explaining.
  4. Provide documentary evidence to support your explanation.
  5. Pharmacy support personnel may also seek assistance from the relevant supervising pharmacist/s or responsible pharmacist.
  6. If it is an organisational policy for your employer to respond on your behalf, do not assume that such response will be sent to Council, or that such response will be accurate. In the end, it is you who is the respondent and you will be held accountable for such communication to Council.

Summary of what to do if you provide reasons

If you, as a respondent in a disciplinary investigation matter, choose to provide Council with reasons why you believe the complaint/allegation against you does not constitute unprofessional conduct, you need to:

  • understand the complaint/allegation;
  • seek further/more details, if necessary;
  • provide a detailed explanation; and/or
  • provide documentary evidence to support your explanation.

Remember, you as the respondent is accountable to Council for your response, even when such response is made on your behalf by a third party.

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