NT pharmacy faces uncertain future

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The Northern Territory’s only university has scrapped its pharmacy program, leaving the sector in a “tricky position” according to one pharmacy leader

Charles Darwin University, the only university in the Northern Territory, has decided that from 2020, it will not take further enrolments into its pharmacy course.

“Rather the university will teach out the program over the next two to three years,” a spokesperson told the NT News in comments also later provided to the AJP.

“There has been limited student interest in pharmacy in recent years. In the past few years we have attracted only 10 students a year into the program, which is not financially sustainable.

“In the next couple years, the College of Health and Human Sciences will be introducing a range of new courses including occupational therapy, nutrition, speech pathology and child protection.”

Pharmaceutical Society of Australia NT and SA vice president Sam Keitaanpaa told the AJP that the move will leave the profession in a difficult situation in the Territory.

“I acknowledge that they do graduate a small number of students each year – but the problem is that those students tend to make up the majority of our intern placements in the NT, which then feeds into our workforce,” he said.

The move was “understandable,” he said, and he could see where the university was coming from, but it is still “an unfortunate decision,” he said.

“There’s a big focus here on Aboriginal health and GP services, and we can’t address that if we don’t even have enough pharmacists to meet the bare minimum needs for all our stores.

“The alternatives are that we can bring in pharmacists from overseas – but there’s issues around the number of visa-supported positions you can take into the NT, even though the PSA was successful in lobbying to get onto the list of professions with high need. There was an increase, but it’s still capped.

“Or you’re going to have to bring in pharmacists from interstate, and that means significant remuneration – and like any other pharmacy in Australia, the pharmacies in the NT have tight budgets to control.”

He said the next couple of years will see the need for significant investment in improving workplace retention in the Territory, and in attracting new pharmacists – which will need input from a range of stakeholders.

Part of having pharmacy listed as a high-needs profession has meant that it is included in the Territory’s population strategy.

People in high priority occupations moving to the NT can receive up to $3,000 for individuals, $6,000 for couples and $7,000 for families to help with moving and living costs. They will be eligible for further payments if they stay in the NT for five years.

Mr Keitaanpaa said that pharmacists working in the Northern Territory, particularly outside Darwin, will have different, and rewarding, experiences to those they may have had elsewhere in Australia.

“In the broader Norther Territory it’s vastly different in terms of the type of diseases, and in our high-risk populations, compared to other areas – mainly around rural and remote areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

“But more broadly as well, we’re a mixed bag because of workforce issues around GPs and other specialties – you have to be adaptive to be a pharmacist in the NT. You need to think outside the box and know all your rules and regulations, to be as effective as possible.

“It brings the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards. And with a smaller workforce, you might be the first person who’s willing to step up and try something.

“I think in the current pharmacy profession, it’s about where the opportunities are, and you can advance your career more doing a couple of years in the NT than in other locations.

“There’s lots of opportunities, but you’ll have to work your guts out to get there – that’s what defines it.”

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