Goldfields pharmacist’s struggles a symptom of worker shortage in remote areas
As you drive east out of the WA Goldfields town of Leonora, you head past a sign saying the next pharmacy is in Alice Springs — that’s a 1,666-kilometre drive away.
For a decade this has been the patch of pharmacist John Coufos. Before then, there hadn’t been a pharmacy in town for 50 years.
“There’s Laverton to the east, Menzies to the south, Leinster to the north and lots of mining sites that we have a wholesaling licence to supply them with first aid and medicines as well, so it’s a really good corner here,” he said.
“It’s not like a normal pharmacy where people come in and get their scripts. It takes a bit more effort to get things out there.”
Deliveries are made regularly, either by staff or couriers, as far afield as the community of Cosmo Newbury about 220km away.
“Couriers are great, but it’s good to get out there and show the customer who you actually are,” Mr Coufos said.
He said Leonora’s more relaxed pace suited him.
“In the cities, people just want to go in and out, but here sometimes people just walk in for a chat,” Mr Coufos said.
“People know I live behind the shop, so if they need something urgent at night they will come by and I will help them out.”
Working during the early stages of the pandemic was particularly difficult.
“Everyone wanted everything that you didn’t have and you would have to go everywhere and try to find stock for people,” he said.
“There was no-one else they could rely on — it was you.
“You can’t go to the chemist next door, so I feel very responsible to get it somehow.
“I was up to 11 o’clock at night just trying to find stock and mine sites needed it as well.”
Back-up forced to fly in
Finding a replacement for time off can be difficult — for Mr Coufos’s recent week off, a pharmacist flew in from Adelaide to replace him.
WA Pharmacy Guild director Matt Tweedie said Western Australia was experiencing a shortage of = pharmacists in regional and metro areas.
He said the workforce needed to expand and could not rely on locum temporary staff to fill the shortages.
“Locums are pharmacists, locums are GPs, locums are physiotherapists, they’re the same pool,” Mr Tweedie said.
“If your pool’s short, your locum pool is short.”
Mr Tweedie said two years of border closures meant interstate and overseas recruitment stalled, although it had slowly begun to restart over the past few months.
“The loss of FTE [full-time-equivalent] staff is spread equally across the state, but it’s more difficult for regions when you don’t have an available workforce for someone to come permanently,” he said.
“We do believe our workforce is down 15 per cent, but whether that is down to furloughing arrangements or due to lack of staff, it’s hard to tell.”
Pharmacists had been doing more work with less staff because of COVID, he added.
“They have done an enormous job staying open, staying available and providing services, especially around vaccinations,” Mr Tweedie said.
“Our calculations are that of the 3,200 staff which were furloughed due to COVID, 1,000 of them are pharmacists who had to isolate since February.”