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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