Lessons Learned: even a single momentary lapse can result in lasting consequences

A recent hearing tribunal issued its written decision on the merit and orders about the conduct of a pharmacist who was found to have diverted 100 oxycodone tablets on a single occasion. Although the tribunal accepted the pharmacist had not diverted the oxycodone for her personal use and her lapse in judgement was uncharacteristic for her, the tribunal still found that the pharmacist’s conduct was unprofessional and warranted sanctions. In diverting a narcotic, the hearing tribunal found that the pharmacist breached the most fundamental elements of trust, integrity, and professionalism.

The requirement for registrants of a profession to consistently act honestly and ethically is a fundamental part of the covenant of self-regulation.

In this matter, the tribunal imposed significant penalties, even though the conduct occurred only once.

The tribunal ordered:
  • a three-month suspension,
  • the costs of the investigation and hearing to a maximum of $20,000,
  • a condition prohibiting the pharmacist from holding the position of pharmacy owner, proprietor, or licensee for a period of five years, and
  • a condition that the pharmacist must disclose the tribunal’s written decision to any pharmacy employer for a period of five years.

Furthermore, the tribunal directed the hearings director to provide their decision to the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General of Alberta, because they concluded there were reasonable and probable grounds the pharmacist’s actions in this matter may be considered a criminal offence.

Rationale for the tribunal’s decision, is reflected in its following statements:

From the tribunal’s decision:

The Hearing Tribunal considered, as [the pharmacist’s legal counsel] argued, that the pharmacist’s conduct was a very quick, one-time act; and the member had no time to think about undermining the integrity of the profession. The Tribunal did not accept that this excused [the pharmacist’s] conduct. Regardless of whether the pharmacist considered the impact of her actions on the profession at large, her actions did undermine the integrity of the profession, even if this was not the intent of the member.

… if pharmacists hand out narcotics without a prescription it will undermine the integrity of the profession, it is contrary to accepted pharmacy practice, and it breaches the trust placed in pharmacists by the Alberta College of Pharmacists and employers. With regard to a serious risk of patient harm, the Hearing Tribunal accepts that narcotics given out by a pharmacist without a valid prescription or medical supervision poses a serious risk of patient harm.

The Hearing Tribunal agrees that the theft of narcotics is a very serious issue. Following all applicable laws and standards, especially pertaining to narcotics and controlled drugs, is central to the core of basic pharmacist practice. Now more than ever, pharmacists play a critical role in ensuring narcotics are distributed safely and according to all applicable laws and standards.

Pharmacists – review your ethical duties to our profession and yourself
  1. Review and discuss with colleagues your fundamental professional obligations. Principles 1, 10, and 11 of the Code of Ethics will provide you with valuable guidance in this respect.
  2. Understand that the diversion of drugs, especially narcotic and controlled drugs, whether for personal or for beyond personal use, can not and will not be tolerated by the profession. Your decision to participate in these activities, even on a single occasion, may result in serious sanctions.
  3. Do not allow your personal circumstances to negatively affect your professional obligations.
  4. Seek help at the earliest opportunity. Many employers offer an employee assistance program and there are many other assessment and support services offered through Alberta Health Services and through the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association for its members.
  5. Review and reflect upon your conduct as it relates to the Code of Ethics and your profession.