Rural pharmacy in ‘fragile’ state

COVID-19 is making the divide between the haves and the have-nots even starker, says pharmacy advocacy group

Levels of burnout have been rising steadily during the pandemic among rural pharmacy teams, with staffing stretched to the limit, according to the Rural Pharmacy Network Australia (RPNA).

While RPNA said it supports the Pharmacy Guild and PSA’s push for pharmacists working to their full scope, it highlights the “impossibility” of many rural pharmacies doing so.

“We’ve been told by rural pharmacy owners that their staffing has been so stretched for so long that they simply can’t contemplate any new services, no matter how much they want to, and the more isolated they are the worse off they are,” a spokesperson for the RPNA said this week.

“For many, the welfare of their staff team is the main consideration, with levels of burnout rising steadily during the pandemic.”

Many of these owners feel “unsupported”, said the spokesperson, and “for these pharmacies, the ‘just do it’ mantra that they hear from the big banner end of the profession is not just unhelpful, it’s downright dangerous”.

Community pharmacy capacity in many rural towns is in “fragile” state due to high, non-offset labour costs and inadequate workforce, they said.

In Bourke, NSW, currently under lockdown due to an escalating number of COVID-19 cases in the community, pharmacy owner Peter Crothers says that supporting his staff has become an overwhelming concern.

“It’s wonderful to see other parts of the community pharmacy network being put to the test and rising to the challenge, it really is, but out here we just don’t have the means, and no-one is offering us any useful resource assistance – we need financial workforce incentives that reflect the much higher costs of recruiting and retaining staff in the bush, but they simply don’t exist,” said Mr Crothers.

“I don’t think anyone would describe me as professionally unmotivated but, far from expanding services, I’ve actually had to cut our trading hours as a result of COVID-related staff stress and, now that we’re under lockdown, new services including COVID vaccination are just impossible to think about.”

RPNA argues that community pharmacy in Australia is evolving into a two-tiered system – those that are resourced and have capacity to expand scope and those that do not.

“We need to take a closer look at the barriers which prevent many rural pharmacies from being able to expand their scope,” said the spokesperson.

“It’s pretty clear that the two main issues are remuneration and workforce shortages, and that they’re closely linked.”

While they applauded Pharmacy Guild National President Trent Twomey for saying the Pharmacy Industry Award 2010 is not fit for purpose, they said more funding for rural and remote pharmacy is sorely needed.

The RPNA also called for a properly funded Rural Pharmacist Workforce Incentive Program.

“Without workforce incentive money, rural pharmacies—already struggling with much higher labour costs—will be completely priced out of the jobs market,” they said.

“If we push for expanded scope but fail to address these issues, we won’t achieve equity of access for patients through the community pharmacy network. The network is only as strong as its weakest link.”

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