With many regional communities battling a terrible drought and with their access to essential services under threat, the role of the local pharmacy has never been more important than it is today.
There are regular anecdotal and media reports of patients waiting weeks to see a doctor, while in some communities the lack of access to bulk billing is leaving struggling families to cope with high out-of-pocket health costs.
This situation is further exacerbated if patients have to travel long distances to get medical care.
Rural communities are often hardest hit. If you live in a smaller rural town, the local pharmacy is not only your first port of call when a family member is sick but may actually be your only readily accessible local health care provider.
There are more than 1,000 community pharmacies across regional Australia with over 400 situated in one-pharmacy towns. Many of these rurally-based pharmacies are struggling to cope with a range of business challenges in staffing, remuneration, regulation and funding that need to be addressed to prevent a further deterioration in access to vital health services.
Rural pharmacies - including many that operate in larger regional centres - consistently report that they cannot attract pharmacists in spite of the fact they offer salaries higher than those being offered in the capital cities and assist with other costs such as rent.
Financial support from Federal and state and territory governments to assist with rural pharmacy workforce issues is minimal compared with the support offered to other health professions, including general practitioners.
While there is no magic solution to this problem, a community pharmacy regional workforce strategy is urgently needed. Such a strategy should focus on the policy changes and financial incentives required to attract and retain pharmacists in rural areas.
The current ‘one-size-fits-all’ system of pharmacy remuneration does not recognise the additional labour, freight and travel costs faced by rural pharmacies, including those pharmacies that serve the medicine needs of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Additionally, because of financial pressures, many smaller rural pharmacies are unable to offer the $1 optional co-payment discount - under which pharmacists can discount the cost of prescription medicines by $1 – resulting in their patients are disadvantaged compared with those in capital cities and large regional centres.
Finally, the current regulatory and funding environment does not take into account the broader health role of rural pharmacies, which, given the lack of access to other health services, effectively may be local community health hubs.
The arguments against expanding pharmacy scope of practice that are put forward by organisations representing the interests of big-city doctors hold zero weight in rural communities where there is no accessible alternative for vaccinations, health screening and preventative health services, the timely treatment of minor ailments and obtaining continuing medicines without a prescription.
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia is advocating to have these important issues addressed as matter of urgency and look to the support of Members of Parliament to champion this cause which will benefit patients across rural and regional areas of Australia.
Our task is to ensure that the interests of rural pharmacies and their patients are high on the agenda of all political parties.