Pharmacy wages under fire

pharmacist holding piggy bank

Lead organisations are beginning to grasp the extent of dissatisfaction with the current state of remuneration among employee pharmacists

Are you happy with your pay rate?

If the answer is no, you’re not alone.

Consensus over the past few months among employee pharmacists seems to be that current remuneration standards are below par, amplified by the growing amount of services they seem to be expected to provide.

“Pharmacist wages are the single largest issue facing the profession in community pharmacy,” announced Pharmaceutical Society of Australia CEO Dr Lance Emerson when opening a panel discussion at the PSA16 conference in late July, titled Improving pharmacists’ remuneration: the plan to get there.

Representatives from all facets of the industry featured on the panel including the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, PSA, Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia, Professional Pharmacists Australia, and National Australian Pharmacy Students’ Association.

PSA was quick to acknowledge the issue and offer support for its members.

“Employees are worried about pharmacist wages. We hear your concerns about low income and wages. PSA is actively working with others to look at that, but we’re also looking at diversifying with evidence-based roles,” said Dr Emerson, adding that the organisation is working with practice groups to find a sustainable model for pharmacists to work in general practices.

“Should we be getting paid more? Who wouldn’t say yes in this room right about now?” asked PSA board member Taren Gill.

“When we’re talking about this we’re talking about people’s livelihood and the capacity to earn. Right now it’s not sufficient. Young people can’t afford to buy a house or to put a down payment on a pharmacy,” she said.

Meanwhile, PPA has come out saying the King Review should consider low pay rates and the under-utilisation of pharmacists’ skills as a key concern.

These issues will form part of the organisation’s formal submission to the review this month, says a spokesperson.

“PPA believes it would be a mistake if the Review were not to consider the impact that low pay has on the sector,” the spokesperson told the AJP. “To do so would ignore the majority of pharmacists – employees – who perform the vast bulk of services available at your local pharmacy.”


Commercialism: part of the problem or the solution?

PPA president and panellist Dr Geoff March said surveys are coming back saying remuneration is an issue. He argued that the industry’s focus on commercialism is part of the problem.

“I think there are structural problems with the whole process. Firstly, we have a high level of medication problems but our practice isn’t really addressing the issue. We put a lot of scripts through but are we caring for patients?” said Dr March.

“Looking back at my 40 years, I’ve never seen it so commercialised in pharmacy, and that’s been a real disappointment for me personally. I think the balance between commercialism and practice is out of kilter at this time,” said Dr March.

Some on the panel disagreed including Gill, who countered that commercialism could become part of the solution.

“I want to challenge early career pharmacists to become more commercial – to understand where sustainable income comes from to keep yourself employed and well-remunerated to provide a skill. Being clinical and being commercial are not mutually exclusive,” she said.

President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia George Tambassis acknowledged that wages aren’t great but said that the focus should be on a “strong pharmacy model”.

“Profit is not a dirty word. It’s about being viable, sustainable and bringing those ideas through,” Tambassis said.

“Unless we can create a viable pharmacy network then there’s no way to find a solution.”

Pharmacists also need to add more value and prove it to the owners, added Tambassis.

“You need to bring something to the equation, learn your trade and get involved – then something good can come out of the [wages] discussion,” he said.


Beyond pharmacy’s four walls

Broadening the role of pharmacists is one area that is being looked into by all industry bodies.

“Enhanced roles for pharmacists are well-developed internationally yet Australian consumers are missing out on access to the full breadth of pharmacist services possible under current scope of practice, from prevention to assisting in chronic disease management,” said Dr Emerson.

Dr March agreed that pharmacists need to look outside the box to find answers to their remuneration woes.

“What we have to think about as a profession, are there other opportunities for pharmacists to work outside those four walls?”

However many AJP readers have responded saying that broadening the scope of pharmacists’ services only leads to more work load with no concomitant increase in remuneration.

 “I see no empathy towards the non-owner pharmacists who pretty much run the cogs and wheels for the pharmacy owners. I remember the beady greedy eyes of pharmacy owners that demanded more generic conversions, more “free” SMS reminder sign ups, more interventions, more MedsChecks, it’s ridiculous… at the end of the day, you have no time to provide customer experience or clinical value because you’re being treated as an expensive shop girl,” said a reader.

“A pharmacy graduate with a $20,000 education bill will never be able to pay it off, raise a family, buy a safe car and a house on the current pharmacists’ wage. And every day they are asked to complete more new programs and services and told they must lift their game to compete,” said another.

A third reader wrote: “Seriously, five years of university study (including internship) to land a job that pays no more than a job at a supermarket with far less responsibilities. The owners only look at their profits and push us beyond our limits, employ minimum staff that can’t even cope with the work load and be grumpy when you enquire about pay rises.”


Disparity of pay rates across the sector

It’s no secret that different pharmacies pay different wages, leading to underpaid staff and wage disparity across the sector.

While some pharmacists may be getting paid a decent rate, others are being undercut.

“We’re seeing discount pharmacies pay $4-7 per hour less than other pharmacies,” said Dr March.

“Some discount pharmacies tend to underpay fresh grad pharmacists… apparently they get paid $26 per hour as compared to about $30 in the market,” a Sydney-based intern pharmacist who didn’t wish to be named told AJP.

“Interns get paid so poorly even though they’re doing the same job as the pharmacist. The current rate is lower than the night fillers at Coles or IGA,” she said, lamenting her choice to study pharmacy and enter the profession.

“The overly greedy cut-price pharmacies are destroying the fabric of a once proud industry,” said an AJP reader.


Pharmacy’s identity crisis

Professor Michael Dooley, President of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia and director of pharmacy at Alfred Health, said it is an identity crisis in pharmacy that is triggering pharmacists’ discontent with wages.

“When you look at pharmacy as a profession, it’s a reflection as a lack of worth in our professional role when it’s offset by how much we get paid. Sometimes people may actually offset their salary with the rewards they get from the way that they care.

“In community pharmacy where they’re pumping out scripts, they see the main thing as remuneration. We need to see an increase in the care that pharmacists provide.

“They get paid about the same as nutritionists and physiotherapists get paid, but the care these professions provide and the personal reward they get from their job takes the focus off the remuneration aspect,” said Professor Dooley.

“Pharmacists as an identity have to know what we’re here for. Are we here for business, small business, healthcare? If we’re healthcare professionals we have to act as professionals. Students need to know what they’re signing up for when they’re doing a science,” he concluded.


The challenge to go rural

NAPSA member Matthew Scott told the panel audience that when he graduates in 2017, he’s looking at wage rates back to 2006 levels.

However he points to the potential for pharmacists to move into rural positions where there seems to be an undersupply.

“There’s a role pharmacists are not looking at and that’s rural. We know that our members are worried about an oversupply, but I’m getting involved in rural placements where they are offering me a job on the second day of placement. I know there are jobs available in rural areas that pay higher rates,” he said.

“We know that wages are higher in rural areas, and that many pharmacists find the lifestyle far more satisfying. We would encourage pharmacists to actively consider job in rural area because of the intrinsic rewards that it brings,” said Dr Emerson.

Not everyone agrees with this option. AJP readers have responded to Scott’s comments saying that going rural is not the answer.

“You shouldn’t be expected to go rural to find a job as a professional – that is ridiculous. That old chestnut of going rural needs to be buried. It’s been done to death: go rural and you will regret it for obvious reasons. The only people saying go rural are those owners that can’t find puppets to run their pharmacies for them whilst they themselves live it up in the big cities! You won’t find many of them staying in rural outback towns or even regional towns,” said one reader.

Another said: “I’ve even been to Outback Northern Queensland and overseas-trained pharmacists have already made their way there – the supply is met. It’s all very convenient to use the tired, old mantra of ‘just go rural’ to solve a professional labour crisis but I don’t think anybody in their right minds would consider any profession a ‘good’ career choice if said career can only take off by uprooting to the boondocks.”

A survey run on the AJP website revealed nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) who had worked in a rural setting in the past said they wouldn’t do so again.

And 12% said they would never go rural to find work in pharmacy.

About 22% reported that they were currently working rurally, while 14% said they had worked rurally before and would do it again.

Gill says working rurally in not for everyone – but everyone should at least consider it.

“Rural or regional living may not be everyone’s cup of tea and there may be some barriers to a tree change, but if you assess your motivators in your career you may find that a non-metropolitan lifestyle suits your needs. If you did pharmacy to help people it makes sense to go to the areas where people need the most help – rural and regional areas have lower health literacy and reduced access to health professionals,” says Gill.

“Wages are often higher in these areas due to the reduced supply of trained professionals and housing costs are lower. There is also an opportunity to integrate into the greater community as a well-respected member of the community. If your motivators are rewarding work coupled with better remuneration we encourage you to give rural or regional living a go. “

“Although it is disappointing that better remuneration is not available for good work done by pharmacists in metropolitan areas, working regionally or rurally is a good option to improve your remuneration now.”


“Something’s gotta give”

Stories from those at the coalface reveal a standoff between Australian owners and employee pharmacists regarding remuneration and pharmacy services.

The reaction the current state of wages in Australia has been almost unanimous: pharmacists aren’t getting paid enough, and there’s enormous pessimism about the future of the profession.

A pharmacist from Africa who is currently studying in Australia told AJP that what they see in Australian pharmacies is “saddening. Pharmacists are always looking tired and unhappy”.

“Pharmacy is in an extremely sad state and I would not wish it on anyone,” said another reader.

One thing is certain: something’s got to give, and soon.

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