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A solution to the locum commotion? Tohidul Islam offers his view

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SO, you are a community pharmacist. You’ve spent 5 years sweating it out, and you’ve accumulated thousands in student loan debts and have big dreams for your future.

The phone buzzes: it’s a message from a locum agency. They would like you to cover a shift. You read on and your smile turns upside down when you read its 50 miles away and they can only pay you £19 an hour, but no mileage. You ask them if they will negotiate, but they tell you there are another 5 locums sitting at home looking for work, but they were gracious enough to ask you first because you’re a ‘good’ pharmacist.

So, you ask yourself: Did I really go through 5 years at university to be patronised by someone who has no idea what is really required to be a pharmacist? You do the only thing any self-respecting locum in your position would, you politely ignore the message and wait for the next available shift.

If the above scenario sounds familiar that’s because as locum community pharmacists we’ve all been in that situation. We have all heard the usual talk from agencies who tell you how many locums they have on their list; how hard it is to find work these days; how bad the economic climate is; rates are just going one way, and that is down.

They will tell you there are too many European pharmacists working for €10 an hour, so you can’t compete with them unless you’re willing to take £19 an hour for an emergency shift or £18 if you’re booked in advance. Some companies even go as far as telling you if money is your main concern this isn’t the job for you.

These days it’s difficult to tell where the pharmacy company ends and the locum agency begins since they work so seamlessly to put a downward pressure on locum rates. What they don’t generally tell you, however, is that you as a locum pharmacist are also a business, and as a business you need to work out whether it’s profitable to stay on in this business or do something else.

What you won’t hear, is the fact that just as you need a pharmacy to work, a pharmacy also needs you to legally operate, although these days there are a lot of other opportunities in different areas. You won’t hear about the risk of a prison sentence from dispensing errors. They also won’t tell you that by hiring a locum it is actually cheaper for the company than to hire a manager as you won’t be getting any company benefits.

So how do we as a community of locum pharmacists deal with this downward spiral of rates and ever-increasing workload? What we need is a market where the locum agencies are neutral and don’t make the situation worse. An industry where agencies would only find pharmacists if it was above a threshold rate — say £21 an hour for advanced bookings and £25 an hour for weekend and emergencies.

The increased workload is something really for the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to deal with, as it is a patient safety issue, but we as Responsible Pharmacists also have a duty to speak up and demand more staff in busier branches.

So, what if we could create an agency that would meet the expectations of locum pharmacists and employers? The only way to do that, I believe, is by creating a cooperative agency which is owned and operated by pharmacists. You see, as pharmacists we are best placed to understand the needs of the industry. We manage pharmacies, we own pharmacies we eat, sleep and breathe pharmacy.

As many of you know, the benefits of a cooperative are huge. In a world where so much wealth is in the hands of so few, what we sorely need are more cooperatives. We need to be community focused. By creating a pharmacist lead co-operative agency we can reward the locums who work with it, thus topping up the hourly rate, and also reinvesting any remaining profit by financing training days. This would mean more locums are up to date on their CPD, hence better at dealing with clinical issues in the pharmacy.

Management and leadership training days can also organised with leading companies, so when a locum is booked companies are confident that they have the best trained pharmacists running their branches and minimise disruption to services. No locum agency is currently offer anything this innovative as no locum agency currently offers anything apart from another cheap locum.

There is a clear need for innovation in the current climate, and I believe a seismic shift is needed in the locum agency market to make it happen. You see, the alternative is brain drain. We have a lot of highly experienced pharmacists who are moving to other sectors. Taking with them years of knowledge and experience. New pharmacists are qualifying and moving to any area that isn’t community pharmacy. A lot of pharmacists are also going back to university to become dentists, doctors or something else completely.

I have been working with a small team of highly qualified locums, managers and contractors to create this unique cooperative. It has been hard work to say the least, but from the success we have had in increasing rates in certain regions, stopping some agencies from exploiting locums, and introducing the base rates I am confident we have a bright future.

When I first started the WhatsApp groups last summer, people said we wouldn’t be able to establish a base rate. We soon outgrew WhatsApp as people saw what you could achieve through unity. At a time where locums were working at £19 an hour,  we were seeing bookings for £30 an hour, a month in advance. Newly qualified pharmacists who were being told by agencies they can’t earn more than £19 an hour were learning to negotiate far higher.

European pharmacists who were being exploited by some companies at £7.20 an hour were being supported and taught to negotiate the same rate as their fellow locums. Fast forward 6 months and the Telegram groups are now at almost 2,000 strong nationally. Our Facebook page has almost 1,000 members within the first week. We have companies who have pledged to work with us closely to ensure our dream of creating a fairer world becomes a reality.

I believe we have a bright future if we as locum pharmacists can work together. Though how bright that future is all depends on how you, as a member of the locum cooperative, see yourself. As a community focused business we welcome everybody. If you just came to the country or if you have been here all your life. We want each and every one of you to feel like you can make a difference because you CAN.

Tohidul Islam is a locum pharmacist

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