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'I am nearly 60, but I still need to work': New rules could see pharmacy assistants made redundant

A pharmacy assistant is qualified to provide cover and dispense medications when a pharmacist is not on the premises.

Image: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

A NUMBER OF pharmacy assistants could effectively lose their jobs or have their hours significantly reduced under proposed changes by the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI).

Pharmacy assistants (PAs) generally fill in for registered pharmacists when they cannot be present to dispense medications.

Their current concerns centre on the number of hours a pharmacist is allowed to be ‘temporarily absent’.

At the moment, there is no specified time limit in which a pharmacist can be away from the premises, which often operate 50 to 70 hour weeks.

Covering for a pharmacist 

How long PAs provide cover for varies but usually cover lunch breaks, holidays, maternity leave, sick days or unexpected absences.

The PSI is now proposing to define the time period of the temporary absence, in which a pharmacist can be absent from their pharmacy, restricting them to just 12 hours per week.

With the rule change, the organisation claims it will improve “public assurance of safe pharmacy practices and patient safety”.

However, the Pharmacy Assistants Association has taken issue with the logic of this explanation. Putting in place a time limit still allows assistants to dispense medications to customers for up to 12 hours per week.

It said a rational approach would be to ensure PAs underwent mandatory fitness to practice training, rather than issuing “arbitrary time constraints”.

The PSI has stated that PAs are not subject to the legal fitness to practise provisions in the legislation governing pharmacies and are not required by law to undertake mandatory continual professional development (CPD) training.

It has not sought to change the governing laws.

However the proposed rule change around hours will impact some 389 registered PAs working nationwide.

Older population

The majority of these workers are women aged over 50 years old as the last qualification for these positions was awarded in the 1980s.

The last course of academic training delivered for PAs was in October 1982 with the last examination being held in 1985. The qualification was awarded by the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland and consisted of a three-year apprenticeship and a one-year, full-time study in an academic institution culminating in an examination.

Qualified to dispense medications

One woman told TheJournal.ie that these changes will mean her mother, who has worked as a PA for over 40 years, will lose her job.

She works 29 hours per week in two shops when the pharmacist is not on the premises and is qualified to dispense medication during this time.

PAs do the exact same job as a pharmacist; in fact, most people would not even know whether or not their local pharmacist is a PA or a registered pharmacist.
If these rules become law, my mother will, at best, lose hours, at worst, she will lose her job.
She has worked in the same career for over 40 years, and is paying a mortgage and she is the main breadwinner in her household. The loss of these hours will have a massive detrimental effect on my parents’ security.

‘I fear my employment will be terminated’

Another PA told TheJournal.ie that she has worked for over 30 years in the job. If the time constraints are introduced, she believes there will be no need for the pharmacy to keep her in employment.

She works 35 hours a week, 18 of these hours are in temporary absence of a pharmacist.

“If the PSI adopt 12 hours per week as the time allowed to cover in the temporary absence of a pharmacist then I fear my employment will be terminated,” she said.
I have worked full-time since I qualified in 1980… I am very anxious as I am still supporting one of my children and if I cannot cover days off and holidays, my employment will end.
If this proposal goes ahead it will have a negative effect on my earning and employment possibilities. I am nearly 60, but I still need to work.

“How can it be fair to utterly change the meaning of my qualification all these years later?” she asked.

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Within the last month, the Pharmacy Assistants Association issued a letter to its members asking them to make a submission to the PSI’s public consultation on the matter.

A statement from the PSI in relation to the proposed changes states that the qualifications of a PA are not being changed in the proposed plans.

“The Council of the PSI has proposed draft rules for public consultation, as provided for under Section 30 of the Act, as to what constitutes the temporary absence of a pharmacist. The purpose of these rules is to provide for a fair and workable model for the definition of “temporary absence”, which also provides public assurance of safe pharmacy practice and patient safety…
The definition of temporary absence does not relate to the qualification of Pharmaceutical Assistant, rather it is referenced to the number of hours that a pharmacy may operate in the temporary absence of a pharmacist.
The rules in no way restrict the practice of a Pharmaceutical Assistant as a Pharmaceutical Assistant … The rules propose a definition as to what constitutes the temporary absence of a pharmacist from a pharmacy, and imposes obligations on the superintendent and supervising pharmacists and pharmacy owners in this regard.

“The proposed rules make no reference to the qualification of Pharmaceutical Assistant and do not in any way propose changes to this.”

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