‘There are no prizes for dispensing huge numbers of scripts or working long hours without a break.’

Kay Dunkley of the Pharmacists' Support Service

AJP speaks with 2020 Pharmacist of the Year Kay Dunkley about how she came to be at the forefront of practitioner wellbeing

Last month, Kay Dunkley was named Pharmacist of the Year in the PSA Symbion Excellence Awards for 2020.

With a career spanning hospital and consultant pharmacy, Ms Dunkley is probably best known as Executive Officer of the Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS), a telephone helpline that offers support related to the many demands of being a pharmacist in Australia.

Here we speak with her about how she came to be in the role, and why practitioner mental health is so important to her.

1. How does it feel being recognised as pharmacist of the year during what has been such a difficult and challenging year for pharmacists?

It is both a huge honour and at the same time very humbling to have my work recognised by my peers. There are so many inspirational pharmacists. In general, we are all doing our best every day in our various roles. All pharmacists make a difference every day to members of the Australian community, not only by being involved in the supply of medication but also by ensuring optimum prescribing and use of medication at many levels.

For pharmacists on the frontline, this year has been very challenging with bushfires, floods and COVID-19. This year pharmacy has dealt with a lot of change in a very short space of time and pharmacists have handled this very well. There have been many heroes in pharmacy in 2020 who have gone above and beyond in their work and this is both inspiring and makes me proud to be a member of the pharmacy profession.

2. How did you end up going into the area of health practitioner wellbeing?

After starting my career in hospital pharmacy and working my way to Deputy Director of Pharmacy, I needed a more flexible role with a young family and went to work at PSA in Victoria.

I found it very satisfying to work in a membership organisation supporting my peers. At that time Val Constable had just established the PSS in Victoria and I volunteered to take calls.

Through personal experience and by observation I knew that the responsibility of being a health professional brings unique challenges and a level of stress. Also I was aware that some workplaces do not provide adequate support to staff and that workplaces can be toxic with bullying and bad behaviour. In addition I was aware that health professionals have access to medications, so there is a risk of misuse and abuse.

During my pharmacy intern year at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, I presented a case study about a medical student admitted to hospital after taking an overdose of paracetamol and I also encountered an elderly pharmacist hospitalised because he refused to take the digoxin prescribed for him.

In my early career years I also saw doctors, nurses and pharmacists distressed by their work, whether that was in relation to making life-and-death decisions, caring for the dying and their families, being exhausted by heavy workloads and long hours, being shouted at by senior staff over a mistake or something missed and a range of other situations.

These experiences reinforced that health professionals are human too and need to be supported and cared for.

Hence after a few other roles I came back to PSA Victoria to coordinate the PSS and soon after was invited to set up a similar service at AMA Victoria. I have been in both these roles for over 12 years and there has been great synergy between the two as there are similar issues for both professions as well as unique aspects.

My experience working as a pharmacist with doctors has stood me in good stead to understand issues for doctors. The research and knowledge about doctors’ health and the established services doctors have has helped me gain a clearer vision for PSS.

3. What are some things pharmacists need to remember to care for themselves and each other during this challenging time?

Pharmacists have a responsibility to care for themselves so that they can care for others. I would like to remind all pharmacists that there are no prizes for dispensing huge numbers of scripts or working long hours without a break. You are more likely to receive a notification from AHPRA or another regulatory body if you do this or perhaps be invited to attend the coroner’s court.

My tips are:

  • Optimise workflow and review staff levels to ensure that during a day you can take some time out to refuel and re-energise, so that you can maintain your concentration and continue to perform well. Regular days off are important too, as are holidays which are long enough to relax.
  • Have an interest or hobby outside pharmacy so that when you are not working you can immerse yourself in something you enjoy.
  • Debrief after a difficult event in the pharmacy – this can be with other staff or a colleague or by calling PSS. Talking can really help work through your thoughts and feelings when something unpleasant occurs.
  • If you are struggling, not sleeping well and not enjoying life, see your GP to see if you might benefit from medication or professional counselling. Make sure you do have a GP you are comfortable talking with and see them regularly for check-ups.
  • Build a support network around you for the times when things go wrong. PSS is always there if you want to speak anonymously and confidentially, but it is also good to have colleagues, friends and family who you can turn to in difficult times.

4. What do you love most about being a pharmacist?

I really love the sense of community that being a pharmacist provides – the common bond, the friendships and a sense of belonging. Even when I travel overseas I enjoy checking out pharmacies wherever I am (and they all have that familiar pharmacy smell).

I really appreciate the many career opportunities that being a pharmacist has given me. Pharmacy opens many doors. Originally I was attracted to pharmacy as it combines science, communication and dealing with people. I chose pharmacy over medicine and I have never regretted this decision.

Anonymous and confidential support is available by phoning 1300 244 910 between 8am and 11pm (EST) every day of the year.

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