The indispensable role of pharmacists – whether in community pharmacies, hospital pharmacies, aged care homes, general practice consultations or other practice settings – as primary care providers has been demonstrated during natural disasters and pandemics, ensuring that Australians have fair and timely access to necessary medicines.
However, we are not immune to the challenges facing the health sector in all parts of Australia. A significant labor shortage has been affecting the pharmacy profession for some time and is putting pressure on already exhausted pharmacists, which is only compounded by the pandemic.
Like many healthcare professionals, pharmacists have come under tremendous pressure over the past two and a half years. As a profession, we set out to meet these challenges to deliver record numbers of COVID-19 and flu shots and provide affordable medicines to the public. We kept our doors open when few could. The important role of pharmacists in society cannot be overlooked.
Against the background of the pandemic, the services of pharmacists, especially in community pharmacies, are steadily growing. Community pharmacists are now often the first point of contact for patients with the health system, seeking advice not only on medicines but also on minor illnesses, smoking cessation, self-care and lifestyle assessment, vaccinations and other specialist services such as sleep apnoea and men’s health support. The paradigm shift in community pharmacy practice is largely driven by patient and local community needs. Pharmacists also play a critical role in the patient’s transition after discharge from the hospital.
Our healthcare system is almost at tipping point, with workforce challenges facing all healthcare professions. To ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of our health care system, we need all health care professionals to perform at the highest level.
In the current GP workforce crisis, pharmacists can and should be able to do more to support and collaborate with our GP colleagues to ensure timely, effective and quality care for our patients.
Despite all this, there is little government support for increasing the number of pharmacists. In fact, pharmacy was not represented at all at the recent federal government jobs and skills summit, nor at the federal health minister’s summit held last month. Pharmacists need leadership from the federal government to plan for the future so we can continue to provide 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 important areas of the healthcare system that deserve attention and support, but pharmacists also work long hours to keep their heads above water.
That’s why the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA), as the peak national body representing all pharmacists, is calling for an all-professional workforce strategy to help identify workforce pain points and address the challenge of pharmacy workforce sustainability.
A recent survey from Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP) found that 67% of respondents considered leaving the pharmacy because of low wages. In fact, a pharmacist’s government fee for a COVID-19 booster is still almost $10 less per dose than a general practitioner’s.1. Pharmacists must receive the same training and follow the same protocol for vaccination against COVID-19 as any other vaccinator. The disparity in recognition and reward is unjustified.
To increase the capacity and capability of the workforce, we need to focus on improving the attraction and retention of pharmacists, which often starts with pharmacist recognition, pay and career development. The current pay structure for pharmacists in Australia does not reflect the skills, training, experience or responsibilities within the health care system. The average hourly rate of pay for community pharmacists is significantly lower than occupations with comparable levels of professional responsibility and training.
To safeguard the careers of our pharmacists, we must enable them to have an even greater impact on their communities through collaborative opportunities in the health sector. Pharmacists should be integrated into the wider healthcare team and encouraged to provide multidisciplinary care. Regardless of practice setting, pharmacists and GPs work well together at first level and the genuine support and understanding we see in practice day in and day out needs to be enabled, recognized and celebrated.
Above all, the healthcare sector must recognize the importance of pharmacists and their role in the healthcare team – both as healthcare professionals and as medicine safety experts.