California association launches ombudsman program

August 15, 2011

The California Pharmacists Association is launching what may be the nation's first ombudsman program run through a professional association.

Key Points

The California Pharmacists Association is launching what may be the nation's fi rst ombudsman program run through a professional association. The goal is to provide employee pharmacists with a free, confi dential resource to help them deal with workplace challenges such as staffi ng practices, patient safety, and working conditions.

Open to all

The idea, Roth explained, is to give employee pharmacists a place to take workplace concerns and complaints beyond their immediate supervisors - whom the RPh may see as part of the problem.

A Swedish import

CPhA hired Kilpatrick for a 1-year pilot program, Roth said. The association's board will discuss interim results in early 2012 before deciding whether to extend the program.

The word "ombudsman" means "representative" in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, Kilpatrick said. The concept is an import from Sweden, where an ombudsman is an independent public official charged with investigating citizen complaints against government and other organizations.

Neutrality and confidentiality

An organizational ombudsman has little or no authority to impose change in response to complaints, but is a neutral, outside party who can help employees and employers work out their differences. The ombudsman process is as flexible and as informal as Kilpatrick can make it. Employees with questions, concerns, or problems call him to discuss the matter at hand. What happens next depends on the issue, the employee, and the employer.

All enquiries are confidential, Kilpatrick, said - so confidential he can't even contact the employer without the explicit consent of the employee. If the employee agrees, the ombudsman contacts the employer to discuss the issue and help settle things quietly.

"An ombudsman deals with a lot of the problems you see in any organization, things like workplace disputes, communications issues," Kilpatrick said. "I don't give legal advice and I don't make decisions for employees, but I can help employees talk through their issues and consider their options on an informal basis. Sometimes I can talk with an employer; sometimes I can refer an employee to a more formal process. A lot of what I can do depends on the employer buying into the process."

Kilpatrick, who spent several weeks meeting with pharmacists, local CPhA affiliates, and pharmacy employers around the state before the program's launch, declined to discuss details.

"It is important to let everyone know that we don't want to hurt employers' internal processes but want to help them function more effectively," Kilpatrick said. "If employers don't accept the ombudsman role, all I can really do is counsel employees on the best way to pursue their action."