Rural pharmacist shortage is biting hard

43357898 - an iconic warning road sign for kangaroos near uluru in northern territory, australia

The issue of whether or not pharmacists should leave major cities in order to find work – or well paying work – has arisen again, with AJP readers highlighting a shortage of rural pharmacists.

In our forum section, David Haworth said that “the rural pharmacist shortage is really starting to bite hard”.

“The regional town I am in has at least four pharmacies looking for permanent pharmacists,” Haworth wrote.

“The rates are well above city rates and even above locum rates but no takers even with rental assistance etc.”

Several other readers agreed, but others pointed out that moving to the country does have its challenges – such as a spouse being able to find work – and suggesting that $40 or $45 per hour is not an excellent salary for a pharmacist.

An poll run earlier this year found that while it would not be the first choice of many pharmacists, only 8% would never go rural to find work.


The rural shortage

LocumCo’s Sue Muller told the AJP that because pharmacy owners are having difficulty attracting good pharmacists to country areas, wages are being pushed up.

“Because of the shortage, unless they offer decent money, there’s no point listing a job and we tell them that straight out,” she says.

“I could put the job up at that rate, but you won’t have any takers.”

She says that many urban pharmacists do locum work in rural and remote areas, particularly emergency locum work, but country Australia is crying out for both permanent pharmacists and those willing to locum.

“You almost have to rely on the pharmacists in the cities and metropolitan areas who are prepared to pack their bags and go to rural areas for a short time when they’re needed,” she says.

“As far as relocating on a permanent basis, that’s a lot more challenging and to lure somebody you really need to offer a decent package.

“It’s probably a generational thing – I don’t know whether the young pharmacists feel that they’ll miss out on their social life, but they seem to be less game to pack up and move somewhere remote.”

AJP forum contributor Peter Crothers told the AJP that other health providers have developed a culture of going rural as an early career boost and then returning to the city, but pharmacists no longer seem to do this.

He cited advice given to him by the then Woden Valley Hospital’s Mel Davis, who said that when considering potential employees he looked for “somebody who’s done a few years in community pharmacy in the bush,” because such experience gives pharmacists plenty of experience in problem-solving and logistics as well as dispensing and counselling.

“The established pattern, over decades and decades, with the medical and nursing professions is to say, ‘I’ll give it five years,’ go and do a stint somewhere and use it as a springboard for their career,” Crothers says.

“It used to be like this with pharmacy but we’ve lost it from our culture, somehow.”

But Professional Pharmacists Australia’s Matt Harris told the AJP that “we just can’t expect people to ‘just move’ to find work”.

“There are a number of additional financial and emotional costs that come with a regional move. 

“A number of factors come into play, such as family and friend networks, moving children into new schools, and adjusting to a new environment.”

He also said PPA would want to get a true picture of employment prospects in regional Australia before supporting the notion of moving to get work.

“Are these long term, permanent positions? Or are we talking about precarious short-term roles? The pay might be good, but the long term job security simply isn’t there?”

Crothers said that pharmacists who are willing to work in rural and remote areas may be able to negotiate with employers for benefits such as extra annual leave, study leave or, as in the case of a colleague in the next town, a two-and-a-half day weekend (the pharmacy in question now closes at lunchtime Fridays).

“The message I’d like to give to people is that this isn’t for everybody, for sure, but for some people it’s the best thing that will ever happen to them career-wise, and even lifestyle-wise,” Peter Crothers says.

“I spoke to some pharmacy students last year at a rural forum and they were terrified of two contradictory things: first, that they’d be stuck in a backwater and never be able to get out. Well, it’s a free country, not a prison farm.

“Second, they were afraid that they’d come all the way out here and not have a job – which is ridiculous, we’re singing out for people!”

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  1. Greg Kyle

    The profession needs to sort itself out! I still have prospective students coming to me telling me that their local pharmacist said not to do pharmacy because there are no jobs! These reports show jobs. Yes, it’s outside the metro area, but a job is a job. Rural work is fantastic. Yes, you will need to move, but people seem happy to move from one capital to another – same issues re: family and friends! Rural life is different, but so much more fulfilling. My family spent some time in large cities and regional areas while I was growing up. When I was looking to but a pharmacy, I only looked at rural areas. It’s a great life. If you’re an employee, it’s also not a lifetime commitment. If you don’t like it, you can leave, but be careful – you might like it!
    Comment to Matt Harris – if people are not willing to move to where the jobs are, they have no legitimate grounds to complain about there being “no jobs”. This can require a little more planning and logistic preparation if a family is involved, but is a piece of cake for singles! You will make new friends and rural life has a different (better in my opinion) pace.
    Yes, rural life is not for everyone, but people should give it a go before simply dismissing it!

    • Paul Sapardanis

      Greg as an employer in the Eastern suburbd of Melbourne its not that there are no jobs its the pay. Why would a graduate work for $45 per hour in the country when they can get that outside the industry with better future prospects. If they may never own their own pharmacies what can they strive to? Most graduates are leaving the industry all together. It would be interesting to do a survey on how many pharmacists that qualified 5 years ago are still in the industry

      • Peter Crothers

        It’s a good point Paul, that is frequently made and seldom seriously addressed. Let’s address it here, now.

        I reckon, objectively speaking, a high-performing base grade pharmacist (i.e., at registration) is worth $60/hour and high-performing Pharmacist-in-Charge is worth $100/hour and yet as an employer I can’t go close to paying that. My own earnings don’t go close and since SPD I no longer expect to be the highest paid person in my business.

        So how do we get to the point where pharmacists are fairly paid? It will be a long road I reckon, but can’t we at least start now?

        One thing is certain – we have to move far beyond employers and employees simply blaming the other side and slagging them off – all that does is isolate and render useless the goodwill that exists on both sides I know plenty of pharmacy owners who agree that our employees need to be much better paid, but can’t see a way forward in the current race to the bottom.

        To move forward, I say we need career structures, we need enforceable practice standards with rewards for meeting some of them and sanctions for not meeting others, we need graded competency standards for employees, we need outcome and productivity measures, most of all we need a supportive remuneration system, and probably more.

        Unless employers and employees are prepared to walk each other home on this one, it’s hard to see it happening. Having said that, I live in real hope and am prepared to do my little bit towards building such an accord, whatever ‘my bit’ may be. There! I’ve said it.

        • Jon-Sean Kempson

          $100.00 an hour – strewth that’s almost plumbers rates!

  2. Toby

    I own a suburban pharmacy in a capital city. Most of the pharmacists I come across, who supposedly are looking for work, seem to be overly precious about everything – the hours, the rate, the tasks. I get the impression they want to be paid locum rates, even if it is a full-time job, work gentlemen’s hours only, and do very little work. I am disappointed that there seem to be so many lamers out there. I don’t know if it is a generational thing, but I suspect that has something to do with it. These same sorts are probably the ones whining about exploitation. They give little themselves.

    • Owner

      Total lamers! You and me would get along. I wish I could get some North Koreans on 457s. They would know the value of a dollar!

      Yours in subjectivity,


    • Simon O'Halloran

      Agreed. Didn’t these pharmacists get the memo that the age of entitlement is over.

    • Paige

      This is the most correct statement of the bunch, nothing more needed. Nut up or shut up.

  3. Peter Crothers

    I find Matt Harris’ reported comment a bit disappointing and I hope that it doesn’t represent a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude from PPA. If it does, its members are not well-served. Health care is necessarily patient-centric and pharmacies are therefore located where health need exists and we can’t just uproot our patients and bring them to where pharmacists want to live – Mohamed actually has travel to the mountain, so to speak. I said to Megan when she interviewed me that there are 4 reasons why a person might choose to go bush. 1. Better learning environment, especially in the area of problem-solving skills (and therefore better career prospects) 2. 2. Better working conditions and professional Quality of Life 3. Better money, although the economics of our industry means there is not an unlimited capacity to pay 4. Better non-salary benefits, such as housing and leave entitlements. You could also add 5. more leisure/personal time due to time saved commuting. No-one is saying it’s for everyone. All we are saying, as John Lennon might have said, is give it a chance. .

  4. Jess Earnshaw

    I am a rural pharmacist and more recently rural pharmacy owner. I have never regretted my decision to go rural. A rewarding and well recognised role in the community, great lifestyle, excellent career prospects and career progression. We are currently looking for a pharmacist to join our team in Emerald QLD. I challenge newly registered pharmacists to take a leap of faith and come “bush”. You never know you might end up loving your job, finding a husband/wife, having a family, creating life long friends, becoming a pharmacy owner and never wanting to leave just like I have. 7 years later I’m in the same town I was planning to spend a year and loving my life and career

  5. Cameron Walls

    There is clearly frustration on both sides. But it’s disappointing to see so many owners blaming it on our “generation” and suggesting that we feel entitled.

    Employees will choose what job they will take, the same way employers will choose which pharmacists they employ. I don’t think we can fault either on their decision if they’ve chosen what they think is right for them. And I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the young singles to fix the rural shortage just because the problem is there.

    But like Sue said, if you don’t offer good money, you won’t get any takers. But I would also add, if you offer great money, or at least good support/conditions, you might even get someone good!

    Why not offer a fully funded conference trip? A scholarship for postgraduate study? Make arrangements for sick leave and annual leave in these remote areas? But never say “negotiable salary based on experience” that just translates to “we’re going to pay you as little as possible”

    • Pete

      There does seem to be an assumption that rural pharmacies are awash with money; ” Why not offer a fully funded conference trip? A scholarship for postgraduate study? “, it’s not always the case – price disclosure, competition and wage growth occur here also. I think it’s time to offer a fast track pathway for overseas pharmacists in a similar vein to what GP’s have.

      • Cameron Walls

        That’s what i mean by frustration on both sides.

        I think everyone in the profession is aware of the pressures that we face. But the offers I suggested aren’t about the dollar value, it’s about showing your potential employees that you value their professional development. That you will support them to practice in a rural/remote location, rather than just get them to fill the position to keep the pharmacy open.

        Offer the same $ value in package if you like, but you could make the position more appealing with a point of difference like this.

        • Andrew Tooms

          I used to run an labour hire agency that engaged various allied health professionals including pharmacists. We would have a mix of techniques to (a) attract and (b) keep people. Conferences, education, pay, bonuses for completing a set period e.g. two years, library supplement, job sharing, CPI increases. Pay, while very important, is not the only attractive thing about a job. Treat people fairly and they stay.

  6. Jon-Sean Kempson

    Pharmacy is like nursing – no work ethic. That is because four years are spent in a classroom, before the pharmacy student even sees the inside of a real life dispensary. These kids need to be on the job from day one – putting stock away, mopping the floor, emptying the bin, serving customers. There are 52 weeks in a year but the universities are lucky to be operating for half of that! They ought to be doing a couple of days a week at uni, a couple of days on the job and a day for study. And they should be doing that over the whole year, not half of it and doing it for the whole five years They would still get the same academic training but heap more prac and might develop an ability in doing something more than standing about like a stale bottle of …. Some pharmacists wouldn’t work in iron lung and leave their dispensaries like a pig-sty expecting their shop assistants to come and tidy up for them. There is just no pride anymore.

    • PeterC

      Harsh, but if you’re saying that there should be more learning on the job – yes, definitely. Much more. You can see it in the quality of graduates who choose to work in pharmacy while a student and those that don’t. The best of the pharmacy-experienced ones are 2-3 years ahead of the practice-naive ones. I reckon students need to be clocking at least 1000 hours in supervised practice over the final 2 years and if the course needs to be extended to cover that, then fine. I would go even further and introduce a compulsory 3-4 year postgraduate on-the-job community pharmacy fellowship program much like the GP fellowship programs, after which a Community Pharmacist would be considered ‘fully qualified’ and have access to additional PBS/CPA/Medicare program funding streams. It would create a career structure in Community Pharmacy, encourage specialisation and entice the best graduates back into mainstream pharmacy

  7. Karalyn Huxhagen

    Like Jess I am a rural pharmacist. Never been an owner though I have tried and failed to purchase a reasonably priced pharmacy twice. The gruelling situation of purchase left me wondering where the fairness of brokers would be in phcy. BUT I do work as a rural locum and I am paid well by those who employ me. I come from a background of managing large and small pharmacies and establishing private hospital pharmacies and vet pharmacies so I have a good background to bring to my employer. I fix up lots of pending issues for busy owners when in the phcy as I have experience and time. I enjoy locuming as I am treated well and fairly. My GP friends tell me I am mad as they charge way more than me but as Peter says the people I work for are doing it tough already. till remuneration improves dramatically no one can expectmore from an employer than they can afford.
    I encourage you to take a trial position for three months as a locum and if you love it stay and if you do not move to the next location on your bucket list. working rural is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of Australia e.g. Katherine, Broome, kangaroo Island. You will be surprised that it is not all about the money.

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