Workforce woes: Part 2

A controversial report argues “absurdly low” wages of pharmacists are the elephant in the room

Read Workforce Woes: Part 1 here.

Last week AJP spoke with pharmacy recruitment specialist and CEO of LocumCo Sue Muller, who is struggling to keep up.

“We are flat out with urgent jobs. They are leaving the profession in droves!” she said.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen it like this, ever.”

Now business consultant and director of Rhodes Management, Michael Rhodes, who has previously levelled criticism at the Pharmacy Guild of Australia (PGA) and argued for supermarket ownership, has again written about higher wages and less work pressure on employee pharmacists.

In the second installment of his report series, ‘The Future of the Pharmacy Industry: The Compelling Need for Change’ released in June, Mr Rhodes says research conducted by his company revealed a cumulative loss of pharmacists, with 14% of the turnover occurring with pharmacists who are at the peak of their knowledge and experience (ages 35 to 49).

But if this is true, what is behind the high exit rate and turnover?

Mr Rhodes believes pay rates are simply too low to retain pharmacists, and there is lack of recognition for what pharmacists do versus what they get paid.

“The remuneration level was the prime reason for leaving and was overwhelmingly the most prevalent reason amongst male pharmacists,” he says.

“The problem is further compounded when women leave to start families and in some cases, don’t return to the profession.”

Mr Rhodes refers to “absurdly low” wages of pharmacists as an “elephant in the room”, given their initial training, ongoing training and general responsibilities on the job.

“This does not bode well for the profession and the industry.

“We recommend that portions of the dispensing services fees are paid directly to the pharmacists who provide the service in addition to their normal salaries and daily retail outlet responsibilities,” he says.

“The median pay scale for pharmacists in Australia is $65,464 per annum. This is less than experienced plumbers and electricians make who have level 4 TAFE certifications and can choose their working days and working hours.

“For an industry that trains so much for its profession and endures ongoing training it is a woeful level of compensation.

“The entry level pay for Australian graduating pharmacists and interns is also desperately low at below $40,000 per annum, which is actually 12% lower than the starting salary in New Zealand.

“Canada and the USA have entry level pay at 23% and 184% higher than Australia respectively.”

AJP readers tend to agree. While we have received a deluge of comments regarding wages over the past few years, here a select few from just the last week:

“The current model of community pharmacy is not clinically challenging or financially rewarding, making all of us dissatisfied and in despair… This is going to be the last year for me in Pharmacy. I’m starting a new degree next year, one that will not be so divided and broken. Good luck to all of those pharmacists that are finally seeing the reality and are seeking a career change. All I can say, don’t be scared and know that you’re not alone.” – SW

“In my group of 20 or so Pharmacy friends, all but 2 have stopped working full-time. Some are studying full-time again while others are working weekdays in a variety of roles like: Pharmaceutical repping, Veterinary nursing, Laser hair removalist, Radiology assistants, and Finance. We do some weekend shifts or a shift here or there just to stay registered. And we’re all pretty recent graduates as well (6-7 years since we graduated). The truth is, we all heard about the appalling conditions while we were studying, so we kept an eye out for other opportunities as well. Most of us got a pretty good picture of the pharmacy profession within 2-3 years out. TBH, these other roles are far less stressful, pay much better and actually allow you to have a work-life balance. As a young pharmacist, you have to work every weekend, a lot of night-shifts or go out rural. Pays are in the low 30s and there is no pay rises or bonuses to speak of. Plus, the allure of pharmacy ownership has rapidly faded making the only financially rewarding career progression obsolete.” – SFOT

A race against time

Research by Rhodes Management, conducted via a confidential questionnaire, also found that pharmacists spend more than 90% of their time dispensing – leaving little time for professional services.

And this doesn’t take into account that many pharmacists work longer than the eight-hour day and without a lunch break.

According to the questionnaire results, there is a two-hour-per-day deficit to provide even the most basic of reimbursed services.

“While the PGA extracts from the government additional funding for services for pharmacy owners, employee pharmacists are struggling to provide those services,” argues Mr Rhodes.

“Many of the single pharmacists we spoke to dispense more than 230 scripts per day and often over 300 on some days.

“Providing any sort of advice or counselling service in this instance is simply a fantasy.”

He believes pharmacists are being subjected to undue work pressure and risk when analysing and dispensing medications, as well as pressure to undertake training to provide the additional services.

Some AJP readers would agree with him.

One ex-pharmacist told us:

“I finally left pharmacy last year after I developed severe anxiety and hyperventilated until I fainted.

“Ever since I registered 7 years ago, I’ve been chasing the magical land of pharmacy to no avail. Every pharmacy I ended up working at (in Syd) was a slave yard, flogging pharmacists to check 60+/scripts per hour, while simultaneously expecting you to put a dozen tubs of orders away. I was valued purely on my companion selling skills over product knowledge and advice. On weekends, I was left alone to do 350+ scripts as a sole pharmacist, while joggling a million patient queries in store and on the phone.

“I kept thinking this is normal until one Sunday, during a busy rush hour, my eyes went blurry, my chest started pounding and I hyperventilated till I fainted in the back of dispensary. I woke up in the back room to ambulance officers and my technician. I got to go home that day feeling broken and inadequate. I was so embarrassed and resigned from my job after that shift. I thought about going back to pharmacy but every time I decided to apply for a role my anxiety came back. I’m now re-training and back to my old self. Happy, cheerful and laugh again.

“If I have any advice to new graduates, don’t bother. Use your degree to get you to a better profession, because pharmacy is no longer a long, fulfilling career it once used to be.” – RK

Mr Rhodes suggests changing the pharmacy business model so there is less of a focus on selling and more of a focus on professional services.

“By all means reimburse for the services, but ensure a quality of service environment to do so.

“Is there room in the market for predominantly pharmacy only prescriptions and medicines and services? Possibly yes. This would allow for clear branding, consumer understanding and better provision quality,” he says.

“If the remuneration model changed to reflect some portion of direct payment to the pharmacist, the organisation, motivation and attention to provide these services would increase as would the profitability of the pharmacy itself even when part of that payment goes directly to the pharmacist.”

Pharmacists’ Support Service is available to provide a listening ear from 8am to 11pm EST every day: call 1300 244 910 for anonymous and confidential support from a pharmacist colleague over the phone.

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