The group that represents pharmacists in Newfoundland and Labrador says it’s been left out of the provincial government’s current drive to recruit and retain health-care workers.
Pharmacist Kara O’Keefe told CBC News that, like other health-care professions across the province and Canada, there are increasing vacancies in pharmacies.
“Pharmacists and pharmacy staff, such as technicians and assistants across the province, are noticing that their workload is increasing, and this increases risk for burnout as well. So it’s something that we’re worried about,” she said.
Those worries include a lack of human resources putting a further strain on pharmacists, who often take extra shifts and forgo time off, which leads to burnout and people leaving the profession, she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put more pressure on the province’s struggling health-care system, filled with physician and registered nursing vacancies and health professionals experiencing burnout. The provincial government has been working to address gaps and shortages, with recruitment and retention packages focused on doctors and nurses.
But pharmacists feel they haven’t been handled with the same level of care.
The association, which represents pharmacists across the province, conducted a survey in 2022 that identified a shortage of about 100 full-time pharmacists in hospitals and community care in rural and urban areas.
PANL has three immediate recommendations for the government: Increase the pharmacy school class size — which the province has done for nursing and medicine — make the transition and licensure process easier for internationally trained pharmacists and negotiate fair contracts with public service unions representing pharmacists and allied health professionals.
“I’ve spoken personally with many pharmacists who have been trained in other areas of the world, who are living in Newfoundland and Labrador right now and want to work here. But the path to that is very convoluted,” said O’Keefe.
“In other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, we see them starting to streamline this process for international pharmacy graduates. That could deter someone from coming to Newfoundland and Labrador.”
PANL also wants the province to pressure the federal government to include pharmacy students in its student loan forgiveness program under the same category as physicians.
Feeling the pressure
There has been a surge in advertisements looking for pharmacists in rural and urban communities, said O’Keefe, and the ads include pharmacists looking for relief.
“For many people across the province, their pharmacy is the sole health-care hub in their community and, as we know, there are issues with lack of primary care right now,” she said.
O’Keefe said she experiences that pressure first-hand as the only pharmacist working on Bell Island. There’s a small community hospital on the island but it has struggled to land a full-time permanent physician.
If she’s sick, if the ferries aren’t running or if she takes a vacation, the pharmacy closes — and the same thing happens in other small communities where the pharmacist is the only person providing health care, she said.
“They need a break too sometimes but right now it’s very difficult to get any relief pharmacists or locums into our most rural areas and this is worrisome for a lot of reasons,” she said. “It increases risk for burnout and it also doesn’t help attract pharmacists to these small communities where they’re so integral.”
Work is underway, says Health Department
In an emailed statement, Health Department spokesperson Tina Coffey said there are 21 vacancies in Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services — 14.3 per cent of positions. The department does not have data for community pharmacies.
Coffey said the Health Department is working with the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board and PANL to determine how many seats are needed Memorial University’s school of pharmacy. There are 40 seats right now, of which 35 are offered to N.L. residents and one is reserved for an eligible applicant of Indigenous descent from N.L.
Coffey also said the department has awarded a contract to Deloitte in to develop a provincial health human resources plan.
“This work includes a detailed gap analysis of supply and demand for several health occupations, including pharmacists, for the next 10 years,” she said. “Opportunities to align workforce supply to demand could include seat increases. The work remains underway with expected completion in the new year.”
N.L. Health Services, in collaboration with the provincial government and the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board, is also hosting an information session with internationally trained pharmacists on licensure in December.
And there are some incentives available for prospective pharmacists, including bursaries of $10,000 with a two-year return-in-service commitment, or $5,000 with a one-year return-in-service commitment with N.L. Health Services for pharmacy students. Pharmacists are also eligible to receive signing bonuses of up to $20,000 for difficult-to-fill positions with a two-year return-in-service commitment.