An illustrious career


“I certainly put myself out of my comfort zone”: AJP speaks with 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Debbie Rigby

The Brisbane-based consultant clinical pharmacist said she was absolutely thrilled to receive the award last month.

“Being the first female to be recognised for the PSA Lifetime Achievement Award makes it very special to me,” said Ms Rigby, who was also named AJP’s most influential woman in Australian pharmacy in 2016.

Here we ask her more about the highlights of her pharmacy career, challenges she’s encountered and what’s coming next.

Awarding of Australian College of Pharmacy Practice Graduate Diploma in Clinical Pharmacy in 1999

1. How did you first get your start in the pharmacy profession?

One of my lecturers at the University of Queensland, Bill Harris, recommended me for a pre-reg [intern] position at a busy day-and-night pharmacy, where I worked with a number of great pharmacists who influenced my approach to being a pharmacist.

I was then fortunate to be offered a job at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane where I worked for the next 7 years, and learnt so much about being part of a team.

2. What are the top five highlights of your career so far?

  • Director of NPS MedicineWise for 12 years (4 terms) – It was just wonderful to be involved with the organisation over the last couple of decades and especially during my time as director, because it really has changed the landscape of medicines use in Australia, supporting consumers on their journey of taking medicines and medicines management, but also supporting in particular general practitioners and pharmacists, and in more recent years other health practitioners just to help consumers get the most out of their medicines.
  • Qld MMR Facilitator – Playing a pivotal role shaping the introduction of HMRs – I literally started with a blank sheet of paper. A wonderful network of pharmacists in the Divisions of General Practice (now Primary Health Networks) evolved to support the awareness and introduction of Home Medicine Reviews. It was an exciting time, networking amongst the facilitators, sharing our strategies, presentations and innovative thoughts. We created consumer campaigns with well-known cooking guru Margaret Fulton, using the tag line “Mixing up your medications can be a recipe for trouble”.
  • Chair of the Australian Association of Consultant Pharmacy (AACP) – also being on the AACP Board and National Advisory Group (NAG) for many years. Together with the CEO Bill Kelly, establishing the ConPharm conference, and see it continue as the best conference for accredited pharmacists. I can still remember the excitement and buzz at the first welcome reception around the Sanctuary Cove pool.
  • Ongoing success of Pharmeducation with Geraldine Moses, providing CPD in a fun and practical way.
  • Travelling Australia and overseas to attend and speak at conferences. I have been a speaker at conferences on all 7 continents! I love traveling and the opportunity to meet pharmacists from around the world.
PSA Qld Gold Medal with Prof Lisa Nissen 2017

When I graduated as a pharmacist more than 40 years ago, I could never have dreamed up the different roles and opportunities I’ve had. So to receive some awards along my career is pretty special to me and a great privilege. In particular, being the inaugural AACP Consultant Pharmacist of the Year and first woman to receive the PSA Lifetime Achievement Award.

3. In which area have you encountered the greatest challenges?

I think my greatest challenges and disappointments have come from within our profession, trying to crack that glass ceiling and champion the role of pharmacists to practice independently conducting collaborative medication reviews and QUM services in non-traditional environments.

I’ve really benefited a lot from my peers, the support from them as well as role models that I’ve had, and my own family, as I certainly put myself out of my comfort zone. That support really helps to drive you to go outside your comfort zone and put yourself up, take the risks, and if you’re passionate about something, if you can see the need for change, I think you’ve got to stand up, it’s not enough to just sit on a committee or a board – as Sheryl Sandberg says, you’ve got to ‘lean in’, make a difference and make your voice heard.

Sometimes it’s difficult to make that voice heard, I guess that’s where you’ve got to be strategic and try to get that support from like-minded people. It does take courage. You’ve also got to be prepared to be disappointed, as hard as it can be, and you just try to do it again or move on and be a little bit more strategic, or get a different focus for whatever your end goal is.

4. Is there still a ‘glass ceiling’ for women in pharmacy?

I am the first female to receive this award, so that’s not lost on the many female pharmacists, both young and older. We still haven’t had a lot of women leaders, as in positions on our organisations, although AACP and SHPA have had multiple women as presidents or chairs of the board. We have certainly growing awareness and there’s a lot of rhetoric around encouraging women to be on our organisational committees and boards.

It is of course challenging to fit it in around your life. And that’s always going to be so, and I think the whole stuff about ‘can you have it all?’ the answer is no – neither can men. So it’s just being strategic, making sure it fits in with your life and your life stage.

There’s definitely been a large shift in the last decade or so of more [women in] leadership.

You only need to look at NAPSA leadership to see the diversity of people that put up their hand and are involved with NAPSA to see there is a real opportunity moving forward for not only gender diversity, but diversity in all its forms.

Debbie Rigby and Sarah Gillespie at the AACP Forum at PAC 2008

5. What’s next?

I always say my next job hasn’t been invented yet, so I’m always looking for opportunities to contribute, to lead, to support other pharmacists in particular. I love learning, I love providing education, but I think there’s also the opportunities for integration of pharmacists into general practice, into aged care, into other environments, this is really what excites me and keeps me going.

And the whole concept of working collaboratively with GPs and other health practitioners is certainly something that I enjoy and I want to encourage and support other pharmacists in any way I can. I’m not gone yet!

6. Top piece of advice for early career pharmacists?

Embrace opportunities and life-long learning; and build a network of amazing colleagues who will inspire, motivate, support and challenge you. Listen with an open mind and heart to what someone has to say.

I will finish with a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg which has always resonated with me: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

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