Is your profession under threat from automation?

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What experts predict about the nature of employment in 2030

Just over a week ago, the Productivity Commission released a report of recommendations calling for community pharmacists to be replaced by automated dispensing and a sub-class of “supervisors”.

Pharmacists and pharmacy bodies were outraged.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia rejected the recommendations as “ill-informed” and “short-sighted”.

“This displays an appalling misunderstanding of the complexities and responsibilities required in the safe dispensing of prescription medicines,” said the Guild.

“The professional consideration and interaction of a pharmacist … around medicines, medication management and the patient are fundamental components of the dispensing process,” responded PSA National President Shane Jackson.

“Community pharmacy is a vital network of healthcare that should be invested in rather than be diminished.”

Immediate past Guild president Kos Sclavos warned of the devastating impact the Commission’s recommendations on pharmacy would have on Australians, their health and the pharmacy sector.

“There’s 3,000 products that the wholesalers have that are on the PBS, and there’s no vending machine in the world that can hold those 3,000 products,” he said.

Unfortunately, automation and digitisation are trends that are threatening not only the Australian pharmacy workforce, but others all over the world.

Driverless cars, for example, are predicted to completely disrupt the automotive industry.

Self-driving vehicles will become “pervasive” within just five years from now, predicts Cisco digitisation head Joel Barbier.

And based on YouGov Omnibus research released this week, most Aussies are open to the idea of robots performing tasks for them, with less than one in seven saying they would not want a robot.

Despite being able to see the benefits that robots could bring, respondents also recognised the threat they pose to people’s employment prospects, with three-quarters of Australians agreeing that robots will take jobs away from many of them.

But what are the real trends affecting pharmacists?

Is community pharmacy really in danger?

According to a new report examining the US and UK workforces, around one-tenth of working adults are in occupations that are likely to grow.

Meanwhile one-fifth are in occupations that will likely shrink.

Thankfully healthcare is expected to grow, with an ageing population across Western countries.

And skills that are likely to be in greater demand in the future include interpersonal skills, higher-order cognitive skills, and systems skills.

However, retail sales workers have one of the lowest probabilities of future increased demand, according to the report, with a trend towards online purchase of products.

“These results support the importance of future routine-biased technological change,” the authors warn.

“Notably they anticipate the impact of automation encroaching on more cognitively advanced and complex occupations such as financial specialists.

“The predicted fall in retail sales workers and entertainment attendants, which between them account for a large volume of employment, is consistent with an expansion in digitally provided goods and services.”

According to global management consulting firm McKinsey, the level of risk all depends on the types of work activities that are provided within an occupation.

Activities such as managing others and applying expertise (decision-making, planning or creative tasks) are the least susceptible activities when it comes to automation.

Meanwhile data collection, data processing and predictable physical work are highly susceptible.

mckinsey graph 1

It’s all about perception

Unfortunately community pharmacists are in the unique position of providing health services within a retail model.

This means they may face similar risks that other retail workers do when it comes to routine-based technological change and the trend towards digital service.

There is also the perception that pharmacist dispensing is little more than “predictable physical work” that can be easily replaced by a machine, as revealed by policy bodies such as the Productivity Commission.

Such misconceptions can translate into policy shifts: the UK has already seen funding cuts to the pharmacy sector, as well as a move towards a “click-and-collect model” and online digitisation of the sector.

It seems clear that for Australians pharmacists to survive, their focus must move towards a more health services-based role rather than a technical one.

Pharmacy bodies need to boost awareness among policymakers and consumers about the roles and duties that pharmacists perform outside of pure dispensing, including medication management and the provision of health advice and services.

The perception and awareness of pharmacists’ expertise and what they actually do will ultimately determine the future of the industry.

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