Boundary violations: Pharmacist found guilty of professional misconduct
Pharmacy Board of Australia v Hopwood (Review and Regulation)  VCAT 575
A pharmacist initiated intimate personal relationships with two women, who were his patients. The first relationship, with Patient 1, was for eight years from March 2010 to April 2018. Patient 1 was also his employee at the pharmacy during the relevant period.
The second relationship, with Patient 2, was for 14 months, from 8 October 2016 to 29 December 2019. The relationships with Patient 1 and Patient 2 overlapped.
In January 2019, Patient 1 made a complaint to the Board. In that month, the Board also became aware of the pharmacist's relationship with Patient 2.
On 23 August 2019, the Immediate Action Committee suspended the pharmacist's registration. However, this decision was stayed by order of VCAT 20 days later and the pharmacist resumed practising.
On 11 May 2020, as part of the immediate action process, the pharmacist gave an undertaking not to practise.
In June 2020, the disciplinary proceeding was commenced against him. It was alleged that the pharmacist's conduct of engaging in an inappropriate personal and/or intimate and/or sexual relationship with Patients 1 and 2 amounted to professional misconduct.
The allegations were accepted.
The Board noted that the relationship between a pharmacist and patient is different to that between a medical professional and a patient, where the provision of care involved close physical contact or psychological care. VCAT considered, as submitted by the Board, that the principles underlying the need to maintain professional boundaries applied equally to pharmacists.
VCAT found that the failure to maintain professional boundaries amounted to professional misconduct.
VCAT noted that the pharmacist:
- readily accepted that his behaviour constituted professional misconduct
- reflected on his behaviour and concluded that a sexual relationship with the patients was never appropriate
- recognised that he did not consider the impact of the relationships he pursued with Patients 1 and 2 and the potential adverse effects for them
- accepted that the personal relationships should have been terminated and it was his responsibility for managing the situation and taking the steps necessary to maintain professional boundaries, and
- acknowledged that his actions were an indisputable departure from best professional practice and a clear breach of professional boundaries.
VCAT determined that it was appropriate that the pharmacist receive a reprimand and be required to undergo mentoring as he resumes practice as a pharmacist. In coming to this decision, VCAT considered:
- the pharmacist's new understanding of professional boundaries
- evidence provided by the pharmacist as to his own reflections
- the pharmacist's clear professional disciplinary record over the 45 years after he was first registered, and
- numerous positive references from local health practitioners.
In the circumstances, VCAT was satisfied that no period out of practice, over and above the 13 months which the pharmacist had already served, was required to satisfy the need for general deterrence in the case. Accordingly, VCAT ordered that the pharmacist:
- be reprimanded, and
- be required to attend mentoring.
This decision highlights:
- that the need to maintain professional boundaries applies equally to pharmacists as to other health practitioners who may provide care to their patients that involves physical contact or the provision of psychological care
- the importance of demonstrating insight into allegations raised in notifications, taking steps to reflect on the allegations and implementing changes into practice to ensure a similar situation does not occur again in the future
- the Board's willingness to acknowledge a period out of practice, for example pursuant to an interim undertaking not to practise, served prior to the conclusion of the investigation.
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