The indispensable role of pharmacists — whether it be in community pharmacies, hospital pharmacies, residential aged care facilities, consulting in general practice or other practice settings — as primary healthcare providers has been demonstrated through both natural disasters and the pandemic, ensuring that Australians have equitable and timely access to essential medicines.
We are, however, not immune to the challenges facing the health sector in all corners of Australia. Significant labour shortages have been affecting the pharmacy profession and putting further strain on already exhausted pharmacists for some time, only compounded by the pandemic.
Like many health professionals, pharmacists have been under immense pressure over the last two and a half years. As a profession, we have stepped up to these challenges, to deliver a record number of COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations and keep medicines accessible to the community. We kept our doors open when few others could. The integral role pharmacists play in the community cannot be overlooked.
On top of the pandemic, the services pharmacists are providing, particularly in community pharmacies, have been steadily growing. Community pharmacists are now often the first point of contact patients have with the healthcare system, seeking advice not only on medicines, but also on the treatment of minor ailments, smoking cessation, self-care and lifestyle assessments, vaccinations and other specialised services such as sleep apnoea and men’s health support. The paradigm shift in community pharmacy practice is largely driven by the needs of patients and the local community. Pharmacists also play a crucial role in a patient’s transitions of care after being discharged from hospitals.
Our health system is almost at breaking point, with workforce capacity issue facing all health professions. To enable efficiency and sustainability in our health system, we need all health professionals to practise to their top of scope.
With the current general practitioner workforce crisis, pharmacists can and should be empowered to do more, supporting and working collaboratively with our general practitioner colleagues to deliver timely, effective and quality health care to our patients.
Despite all of this, there has been little government support to grow the pharmacist workforce. In fact, pharmacy was not represented at all at the federal government’s recent Jobs and Skills Summit, nor on the Federal Health Minister’s Health Workforce Summit last month. Pharmacists need leadership from the federal government to plan for the future so that we can continue providing care to our communities.
We have seen extensive future workforce planning for other sectors of the health workforce — for doctors, emergency medicine, psychiatry, nurses and midwives. These are critical areas of the health system that deserve attention and support, but so too are the pharmacists working long hours to keep their heads above water.
This is why the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), as the peak national body representing all pharmacists, has been calling for a whole-of-profession workforce strategy, which would help identify workforce pain points and address sustainability of the pharmacist workforce.
A recent poll from the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP) found that 67% of respondents had considered leaving pharmacy because of low wages. In fact, the government payment to a community pharmacist for COVID-19 booster vaccinations is still nearly $10 less per dose than a general practitioner1. Pharmacists are required to undertake the same COVID-19 vaccination training as any other vaccinators, and the same protocol is followed. The discrepancy in recognition and remuneration is unjustifiable.
In order to drive workforce capacity and capability, we must look at improving the attraction and retention of pharmacists — which often starts with addressing pharmacist recognition, remuneration and career progression. The current structure of pharmacist remuneration in Australia does not reflect the skills, training, expertise or responsibility in the healthcare system. The average hourly pay rate for community pharmacists is well below that of professions with comparative levels of professional responsibility and training.
To ensure our pharmacists have rewarding careers, we must allow them to have an even greater impact on their communities through health sector collaboration opportunities. Pharmacists should be integrated within the wider healthcare team and be encouraged to undertake interdisciplinary team-based care. Regardless of practice settings, pharmacists and general practitioners work well together at ground level, and the genuine support and rapport we see in practice day in, day out should be enabled, acknowledged and celebrated.
Above all else, the health sector must recognise the importance of pharmacists and their role in the healthcare team — both as health professionals and medicine safety experts.