Pharmacists seek urgent injection of qualified staff in country areas
Retail pharmacies in regional areas are struggling more than ever to attract and retain permanent staff because many recruits are unwilling to relocate to the bush for jobs, the industry says.
Country pharmacies rely heavily on locums to keep their doors open, shelling out thousands of dollars on wages, accommodation and travel for casual staff.
In Australia, pharmacies cannot legally open without a qualified pharmacist on site, leaving owner-operators in country areas fearful about the future viability of their businesses.
The latest government data shows there are difficulties recruiting in Tasmania and shortages in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.
It recently took veteran pharmacy owner Terry Travers — based in Devonport, 200 kilometres from Hobart — 12 months to recruit a permanent pharmacist.
Mr Travers has worked in the sector for almost four decades and said it had never been this hard to get staff to help run the business, and possibly take it over in the future.
“I’ve had to pay a Sydney agency a lot of money to come down here for six or eight weeks,” he said.
“There’s very few local locums … because they are reluctant to come out to the regional areas, which is creating quite a problem for us.”
During a recent battle with illness, Mr Travers was left with no choice but to cough up for temporary staff from interstate or close his doors.
“If you have to engage a locum, the fees from the agency can range from $1,000 to $4,000 for a couple of months … so it makes it almost beyond reasonable, but you have to have someone, so you pay it,” he said.
“If you physically can’t work, like I’ve been ill, then you have to pay whatever it costs, so in the short term you wear it but in the long term it’s not sustainable.”
Country shortage dire, says agent
Pharmacy recruiter Sue Muller said demand was booming, describing the shortage in regional Australia as “dire”.
“I’ve been in pharmacy recruitment for close to 32 years now and I’ve never seen it as bad as it has been lately,” she said.
“The pharmacies looking to recruit permanent pharmacists have to wait for months on end until we can secure someone to take a full-time role.”
Tasmanian Pharmacy Guild President John Dowling said he experienced a barrage of feedback from pharmacy owners about problems recruiting staff.
“It’s been bad for several years but it’s gotten worse in the last 12 months or so,” he said.
“The statistics that are published don’t take into account that people may work longer hours, not take holidays, the pharmacists that work for the employer end up doing more hours.
“People would like to have extra pharmacists but they’re just not available so it means that some of the services we provide are actually harder to provide because we don’t have the manpower.
“I’ve been the Tasmanian president for quite some time, I’ve never had it as bad as this … it’s certainly worse now than it’s been in the last 20 years.
University incentive a possible remedy
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia said all levels of government must develop more innovative ideas to attract more pharmacists to rural, regional and remote areas.
President George Tambassis said the guild would lobby major parties in the lead-up to the federal election to consider fresh measures, including university subsidies similar to those offered to medical students to encourage doctors to work in the bush.
“One of the innovative ways that you can approach this issue is trying to get students and interns before they get qualified to try have a taste of what it’s like working in those rural or remote areas,” he said.
“If we can get the universities and the governments to assist us to put the young pharmacists in placement positions out in those regional towns, then it should be much easier to either retain them there or ask them to go back later in time.”
Move to better paid hospital jobs not helping
The Guild said wages were also being driven up as many pharmacists leave the retail sector for hospital positions.
Mr Tambassis said some state governments were increasing their pharmacy departments and are employing more pharmacists.
“That means the amount of people available for community pharmacies which are privately run becomes much harder,” he said.
“That’s definitely the case in Tasmania, where we know that pharmacy departments in publicly run hospitals are getting bigger and bigger.”
Mr Tambassis said the stresses of servicing regional towns without extra support from casuals takes a toll on owner-operators who cannot afford locums.
“The pressure is immense, the stress is immense, and if they can’t get a qualified locum then they’ve got problems with actually opening up their pharmacies,” he said.
He said the current system was not working and urgent change was needed to stem the decline.
“There’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of impact on all sorts of health services in those regions where pharmacies are finding it hard to attract staff.”