Rhonda White: ‘Our role is underplayed’

Rhonda White receives honorary Guild life membership from Greg Hunt

AJP chats with Rhonda White about direct supply, why governments must utilise pharmacy more, and why the profession has a very human future

Pharmacy legend Rhonda White has received the Pharmacy Guild’s most prestigious award: honorary life membership.

Ms White was presented with the award by Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Ms White first registered as a pharmacist in 1963 and is a co-founder of the Terry White Chemists (now TerryWhite Chemmart) group; she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the pharmacy sector in 2013.

Here she is on:

Pharmacy’s biggest opportunities. “I believe this is actually our role in sustaining the health care system in Australia. Our role is underplayed, and I’m seeing that change, but it’s certainly not a big step change, or a revolutionary change.

“But the system can no longer afford unnecessary hospitalisations, and we’re the key to that. We’re key because of the fact that we’re so highly accessible, we’re highly professional, we’re the medicines experts – so why isn’t the Government recognising the chance we have to do more for them?

“I think the time has come,” she says, citing the success of the flu vaccination trial in Queensland and the program’s implementation across each state and territory.

“The strength of that trial was the university who instigated it, the PSA and Guild all working together – it was formidable and the Government could not ignore it.

“More and more vaccines should be available in pharmacy. And we’re not taking away from the doctors for one minute; these are people who wouldn’t have been vaccinated anyway, and many GPs are running controlled practices and not taking new appointments.

“That was the first breakthrough. There’s a dozen other minor ailments that pharmacy should be empowered to treat. There’s quite an old study, about four years old, out of Monash University that showed pharmacy can save the Government something like $2.4 billion. Vaccination is a very big change I’ve seen in my lifetime, and there will be more.”


On how the industry has changed. “I worked hard in pharmacy for about 10 years, went back to university and got involved in organisational psychology and development. I felt I came back to a cottage industry in the mid-80s – that was why I got so involved with writing systems for us.

“Systems and standards have been a very big change for us, and each step is an evolutionary step.”

Ms White says she is excited about the implementation of My Health Record, particularly given its potential to assist pharmacists in bridging the gap between patients being discharged from hospital, and accessing health care in the community.

“At the moment there’s a big slip between cup and lip when they come out of hospital,” she says. “It’s a big gap and I think the Primary Health Networks are trying to attack that, but this new system will greatly assist.”


How might pharmacy look in another 54 years? “I put robots in all our pharmacies – I can’t say the whole group, but certainly the pharmacies I’m involved in,” Ms White told the AJP.

“That’s for the specific reason of allowing our pharmacists to do what I believe they should be doing, which is medicines advice. That’s where we’re keeping people out of hospital and bridging the gap between hospital and coming home, and we’re really capable of doing quite a bit with minor illnesses.

“Everything will be robotised and I think there’ll be a lot of artificial intelligence, but ultimately, I believe there will always need to be that medicines expert who can take three plus three and not come up with six – because six isn’t always the answer.

“I’ve been watching my young ones sit down with people and say, ‘normally you’d do this, you wouldn’t take these together but in these circumstances lets’ do it this way’ – a computer will always let you down if you ask it to think about situations like that.

“We can’t ignore artificial intelligence and robots, and I think robots have done wonderful things for pharmacy, but as humans we crave human interaction and that has to stay with us – as long as we’re human.”


On direct supply: “The structure of the industry is based on the wholesaler going to the community pharmacy, and the manufacturer going direct to pharmacy is undermining the foundation and the really high standards of pharmacy,” Ms White says.

“They say they’ll deliver within 24 hours but that will diminish and become more expensive for us.

“The CSO arrangement is terribly important to ensure that distribution of medicines to Australians. It’s not that important for me – my pharmacies are in pretty busy, close areas – but it’s very important for country Australians and those living way out back.

“Every consumer in Australia should have the same access to medicines, wherever they live.”


On rents: “The Guild is trying on this, but I’d like to see more effort being put into communicating with landlords, and talking about the fact that if they want pharmacies in shopping centres, they have to listen to what’s affordable,” Ms White says.

“Years ago it was very different, but now some rents are unsustainable.”


On QCPP: “I don’t think anyone could discount the importance of QCPP and its benefit to our industry, though I think some of the young ones take it for granted and think it’s onerous,” Ms White says.

But if the Guild and the wider sector had not taken it on themselves to develop it, “It would have been imposed upon us, and it would have been three or four times as expensive for us.

“I was delighted that I had a part in initially developing the systems for our pharmacy group, and many of those were made available to the Guild when they were developing QCPP, and I believe they were the basis of a lot of it.”


On TerryWhite Chemmart: “I’m staggered that they have 400 actually signed and committed to the new brand,” Ms White says.

“It’s amazing to have 400 up already, and probably by the end of next year nearly 500, maybe 480.

“When you do any merger or acquisition there are areas where there is some hurt, and there’s a few places where we have to go back and address areas of concern, but we now have a very diverse group of pharmacist coming together, and we have to find where we have more in common than we don’t – and I think as community pharmacies we have more in common than we don’t.”


On being honoured by the Pharmacy Guild: “I’m delighted, of course. And I’m really delighted to see all the new young people on the Guild committees and national council. We’ve got Catherine Bronger and Trent Twomey and David Heffernan.

“Every organisation is healthier for renewal. Thanks to the Guild we have such a strong voice, and we need to see that advocacy played out – they do promote the industry to government, they’ve achieved the Guild-Government Agreements… what we think of each one of those is irrelevant, what matters is that we have something constant to build our businesses on, and that’s so important.”

Ms White also paid tribute to the PSA and its clinical/professional role, as well as Health Minister Greg Hunt and his approach to the pharmacy sector.


And her advice to young pharmacists? “It’s tough at the moment,” Ms White says.

“I do understand that. But ‘tough’ is often where you learn, and failure is where you learn the most.

“I have failed many times, and these have always been my best learning opportunities.

“But the bottom line is that there’s still a great profession out there. And health is a growth industry: where are you going to look for your job? You’re going to look in a growth industry.”

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