Thursday Island Pharmacy

Organising choppers and using barges to get medicines to patients is part and parcel of this pharmacy’s daily operations

By Peter Waterman

Running a pharmacy where you clock up a $60,000-plus bill every year chartering helicopters to get medicines to your customers adds challenges that most businesses – let alone community pharmacies – would never have to face.

But for Mick Delaney, proprietor of Thursday Island Pharmacy, issues like organising choppers is part and parcel of the pharmacy’s daily operations.

For Mr Delaney, owning the pharmacy on Thursday Island is a far cry from his days studying pharmacy in Melbourne.

“I graduated in Melbourne 15 years ago and I didn’t have any aspirations to own a pharmacy and just wanted to travel and work in different parts of Australia. I headed to Alice Springs at a time when rural and remote pharmacies were having trouble getting pharmacists so I was welcomed with open arms,” he said.

“I was working as a locum on Hamilton Island when I met the owner of the Thursday Island pharmacy and we were very similar – we both knew the needs of remote communities and understood remote supply issues.  My wife and I ended up moving up here to TI (Thursday Island) and in December 2012 we bought the pharmacy.”

Organising choppers is part and parcel of the pharmacy’s daily operations.

Mr Delaney said he had great ideas of what to do but was keen to become part of the community.

“This can be a tough environment in which to run a business but I think our commitment is one of the reasons we have been successful,” he said.

“My philosophy helps. I am motivated by achieving better patient health outcomes.  We are in a privileged position where we don’t have any direct competition but we don’t let that be an excuse for offering anything but the very best service.

“We really engage with our customers and we try to improve their health and their life. “For instance we are the only place on the island to sell make-up and this is important for our customers. So we are not just about medicines and health services; we offer the whole package for their health and lifestyle.”

The pharmacy services about 3,000 residents on Thursday Island itself and then in the immediate island group there are about another 1,000 residents it looks after. On top of that there are about another 4,000 in the otter island groups.

“It’s a bit strange to explain but effectively we have a pharmacy with a front of shop servicing some 3,000 people who come in to get their scripts made up and to buy over-the-counter and front-of-shop products,” Mr Delaney said.

“Then our back of shop where we do DAAs and bulk supplies caters for another 5,000 or so people. These are people that we supply medications to but who may not come into the shop or if they do it is pretty rare and only if they are on the island for some other reason.

“So we are pretty unique in that our back of shop is much bigger than our front of shop but our front of shop is still strong and able to stand on its own.”

Some of the Thursday Island Pharmacy team.

Getting medications to the outer islands presents unique logistical problems.

To get non-urgent medications and bulk supplies to the other islands the pharmacy uses the area’s once-weekly barge services and then for urgent and Webster-Paks the pharmacy uses scheduled air services which vary in regularity depending on the size of the island.

“We use flights for these deliveries mainly because the barge can be a bit unreliable and sometimes cannot land because of tides and so on or it breaks down,” he said.

“Every second Friday we do a helicopter run to remote clinics.  We outlay more than $60,000 a year on helicopters to clinics and islands and even with funding and allowances we don’t make money out of these services but they are every important to provide to the communities. And providing health services to these remote communities is very satisfying.”

Mr Delaney said the pharmacy had a very strong focus on baby care and baby health.

“Our biggest category is baby health. We’re an old school pharmacy and so we sell a lot of nappies, formula, baby products and also provide baby wellness checks.

“We are only one of two private healthcare providers in the whole district and we are very highly regarded in the baby care area. This flows into our biggest OTC category which is child analgesics because patients trust us when it comes to their child’s needs and health.”

Bering a private healthcare provider enabled the pharmacy to help the outlying clinics when Queensland Health might not be able to.

Organising medicines.

An example of such intervention was with anaphylaxis kits which were sent out four years ago to the outlying communities but over the years the containers had cracked and gone gone yellow.  

“We just went out and bought new containers for them which is the sort of thing we do. “The communities had put in numerous requests to Queensland Health for new containers but hadn’t had any joy so we just got up and did it. They know they can turn to us for things that Queensland Health may not be able to help with and we do what we can.”

The pharmacy provides a limited range of professional services and these are chosen after careful consideration.

“My philosophy is to do things that are best for the patient and that includes choosing the professional services that we offer.

“We are very selective about the professional services we offer and we look into them very carefully to make sure they are sustainable before we introduce them. We don’t want any flash-in-the-pan services.

“We provide Home Medicine Reviews, Medschecks and absence from work certificates – and we’re looking into myDNA screening and chlamydia screening.

“We provide vaccinations and all four of our pharmacists are trained in the full suite of vaccines so that we can give vaccinations at any time. There is nothing worse than only having one person trained in an area and having patients turn up to access that service only to find it’s that pharmacist’s day off. So for all the services we provide we make sure that we can provide them when people want to access them.

“We discuss with our staff any service we may be planning and get their input into the idea. Our customers are mainly Torres Strait Islanders and all our staff are Torres Strait Islanders so we need to ensure the services we provide are what they want and need. We are very well aware that we are a pharmacy for Torres Strait Islanders.”

Mr Delaney said the pharmacy was currently examining introducing the myDNA service.

“We looked at it and at first thought that it might not be a service that Torres Strait Islanders would take up but after discussions we saw great potential in the mental health area as myDNA is seen as very useful for patients on anti-depressants.

“So it’s early days yet but we are looking at partnering with the local area mental health team and offering the myDNA screening for their patients.

“The point is that if you start on antidepressants now it can take your doctor up to 18 weeks to tweak the dose to get it right for you – and that’s in an area where you have access to the doctor almost daily.

“But imagine living on a remote outer island where you only see the mental health clinician once every six months…that’s why I am excited about the myDNA screening as it would be a huge benefit to these patients in getting their medications right early on.”

Some of the Thursday Island Pharmacy team.

One of the most satisfying moments in his career to date was the opening last April of a new pharmacy.  

“We opened a new pharmacy in Bamaga which is across on the mainland but falls into the Torres Strait region.

“Before we opened the pharmacy there it was serviced by us from Thursday Island and there was a nurse who supplied the medications to the patients.

“Just over two years ago we succeeded in lobbying Queensland Health to put a pharmacist into the town who was doing about 80 scripts a day but we saw the need for a proper pharmacy and in April last year we opened Bamaga’s first pharmacy which was immensely satisfying and rewarding.

“I believe that for a community to survive you need some essential elements like schools, police – and a pharmacy.

“One of our young pharmacy technicians from here has moved over to manage the Bamaga pharmacy.

“Also because of our association with it we can help and an example is when the pharmacist injured his back early this year and was unable to open so I chartered a helicopter and flew over to make sure the community had a pharmacy open that day.

“In the old days they would have simply gone without a service. A helicopter ride is a cool way to go to work – but expensive. But that’s our commitment to the area.”

One of the everyday challenges faced by the pharmacy is the variety of languages spoken on the island and also the fact that age demographics tend to dictate which language people speak.

“Our patients and customers who were born before 1960 speak the local language as their main language, then a Creole-pidgin English mix, and then English as their third language.

“Those born after 1960 tend to have the pidgin-Creole mix as their main language, then English, then their traditional language. Post 2000 basically they just speak English and bit of Creole which is much more English than pidgin now.

“So we have to be able to communicate with this broad range of different language needs and we ensure that we have the right mix of staff to meet these needs. This has also helped to make us part of the community.”

Quick questions: Mick Delaney

1. What motivates you as a pharmacist?

I am motivated by achieving better patient health outcomes.

2. How long have you been a pharmacist?

15 years

3. Tell us about your pharmacy.

The store is about 160sq m front of shop and 120 sq m back of shop for blister backs and bulk supply. In addition we have a 15sq m consulting room.

4. How many staff full-time and part-time do you employ?

We have nine full-time staff, of which six are trained dispensary technicians and four part-time afterschool staff. We have four pharmacists working part-time so we have two on duty at any one time.

5. What is the most successful category in your pharmacy and why?

Child care and child health needs as we are basically the sole provider of these in the area.

6. How long have you owned or operated your current store?

We have been here since December 2012.

7. Do you offer professional services inside?

We offer Home Medicine Reviews, Medschecks, absence from work certificates and vaccinations. We are currently looking at introducing myDNA screening.

8. What kind of customers do you attract?

Our customer base is primarily Torres Strait Islander people.

9. What is the philosophy for your pharmacy business?

My philosophy is to do things that are best for the patient.

10. Describe your day to day challenges working on Thursday Island and how you overcome them?

The range of languages spoken and the distances of remote islands that we service. We have staff on duty at all times who can speak the languages and we service the islands by barge, scheduled air services and chartered helicopters.

11. How long have you operated your current store?

Four years

12. What has been your most satisfying moment in the pharmacy?

Opening a new pharmacy at Bamaga.

13. What is the most successful OTC category in your pharmacy and why?

Child analgesics as we are big in baby and child healthcare.

This story was originally published by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, and has been republished on AJP with permission of the author.

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