How To Find (And How To Be) The Ultimate Locum Pharmacist – with Sue Muller

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– a person who stands in temporarily for someone else of the same profession

Locum pharmacy isn’t everyone’s cuppa, but it fits the bill for many. When first starting out as a pharmacist, working as a locum is a wonderful way to gain a wealth of experience in different working cultures and with different systems and processes. Someone who knows all too well the pros and cons of working as a locum is Sue Muller. Sue graduated as a pharmacist from Sydney University in 1974, and started her career as a fill in pharmacist around the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. “I was working as a locum and found that I was offered more locums than I had days in the week, so I started offering work to my friends when I was unable to cover a shift,” Sue says. “After a while, I realised that there was an opportunity to do this on a more formal basis. I first did the recruiting in the evenings after working all day, then in time gave up one day each week to do this, before growing into a full-time job. The service started in Sydney metro and in time grew to New South Wales and eventually covered the whole of Australia.”

Sue’s small after-work side hustle is now LocumCo, a national recruitment business in its 32nd year, specialising in Community and Hospital Pharmacy. As a pharmacist herself, Sue is passionate about the pharmacy industry, and equally as passionate about doing business the right way. She attributes passion, balance and effective use of technology to her on-going success. “Recruitment is about people and you need to nurture relationships as well as provide the best possible service you can,” she says. “The challenge in the current climate is to find a pharmacist who is willing to commit to full-time employment. With the shortage of candidates in the market, especially in rural areas, employers are being forced to pay higher wages in order to secure a candidate. Retention of candidates is also an issue.”

To use a recruitment service or to not?

Both locums looking for work and pharmacists looking for staff can choose to walk their own path or use services like LocumCo. For Sue, it’s a no brainer. “Sometimes pharmacists are so desperate to fill a position they take the first person who applies rather than the most suitable person for the job,” she says. “Pharmacy owners are time poor and so do not realise what is involved in the recruitment process. It is not something they do on a daily basis so they would be well advised to leave the task to a professional.  Their time can be better spent in other areas of the business.” She says the recruitment process starts in the job description. “Initially they need to compose an exciting job description which draws attention to the position and defines the culture of the business.” Since the business opened its doors in 1987, LocumCo has been a 24/7 operation – meaning if you get hit by a car at 10pm, your pharmacy could still open the following day. “If we happen to miss a call outside business hours, we always call back within an hour. We regularly get emergency calls on weekends and nights and even early mornings to secure locums at short notice. Despite the shortage, we manage to fill all these positions.”

Recruiting for regional areas

A shortage of candidates is a critical area of concern for regional and rural areas, with pharmacies across country areas crying out for good pharmacists and staff. Sue has a few tips for pharmacies to draw employees into the bush. “To improve chances of securing pharmacists in rural areas, we often suggest including accommodation in the package because this is often highly sought after,” Sue says. “Under the Emergency Locum Service to rural Australia, which LocumCo has managed since 2002, we provide emergency locums to rural Australia at times of medical emergency or personal tragedy. We are proud to boast a 100% success rate. We have never let anyone down. Since permanent pharmacists are so difficult to recruit to rural areas, we try and help the pharmacies by providing them with locums until a permanent pharmacist can be secured.”

Perks of the job

There are many positives when it comes to working freelance. “Locum work provides flexibility that permanent work cannot offer and it gives young pharmacists a wealth of experience working in different pharmacies and seeing how different owners conduct business in different ways,” Sue says. “They can see the best and the worst of businesses. It’s also a great way to see our beautiful country and have the opportunity to see places they would normally not have the opportunity to visit, all at the owner’s expense.” Sue says her company provides a checklist for pharmacy owners to complete for the incoming locum so they’re aware of all passwords, wholesalers and local doctors – while locums should always be aware of the dress code and logistics around their new office for the day. “It’s good to know whether a white coat is required,” Sue says. “Always plan to arrive at least 15 minutes earlier than the designated time in case of unforeseen holdups. Check the best possible route to travel whether by car or public transport. Locums should also make sure they’re aware of the person who holds the keys to the pharmacy and have their contact details in case of anything unforeseen.”

To make a good impression as a locum, make sure you:

  • Are organised. Arrive early, know who to check in with and what to wear.
  • Be patient-centric. Whilst this may not be your permanent workplace, give supreme customer service. Records are kept of great locums and this will ensure you will get plenty of work.
  • Keep an accurate log of upcoming work so you don’t double book yourself.
  • Be as calm and collected as you can be. The first day working in a new environment can be stressful, however you want the pharmacy staff to trust you’re on the job.

Sidling into retirement

It’s not just for those looking to travel – locum work is particularly good for those transitioning to retirement. Chris Farquhar registered as a pharmacist in 1979 and owned three community pharmacies over his extensive career, before semi-retiring in 2015 – moving to Sydney’s south coast with his wife to be near their grandchildren. “I always wanted to return to locum work when I semi-retired as a way of maintaining my contact with the profession and giving something back to the profession that has fed me for so many years,” Chris says. “In particular I have always yearned to locum in rural areas to help pharmacists there who get little support if they need a break. I quickly focussed on Emergency Locum work, as was recommended to me by Sue Muller from Locum Co. The emergency work suited me in that I could work about a week each month and get paid a higher rate than normal locums.”

Supporting the bush in emergencies

The Australian Government funds the Emergency Locum Service (ELS); an initiative of the Rural Pharmacy Workforce Program (RPWP) which aims to support pharmacies in rural and remote areas through direct access to pharmacist locums in urgent emergency situations. Managed by LocumCo, the service provides 24 hour a day, seven day a week telephone access and up to $2,500 to fund the travel costs of the locum – aiming to place a locum in any location in Australia within 24 hours, for a maximum of 7 days.  “From my end, I’ve replaced pharmacists after they had a stroke, are needing a dentist urgently, were having a baby or getting married, among many other reasons,” Chris says. “Working as an Emergency Locum is challenging and I enjoy that. I walk into a Pharmacy and have to make it work from the get go. It is challenging and personally rewarding when everything goes well.”

Chris says it’s thanks to the pharmacy staff that the businesses run smoothly, without whom the locum’s job would be very difficult. However, having worked as a locum from Townsville to Tasmania and throughout South Australia and Victoria over the last four years, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the job easier. “I think the key attribute of a locum is to be calm and in control, which instils confidence in the pharmacy staff,” he says. “You must be patient focussed and genuinely interested in your customers and their problems. It’s important to be able to talk to people about far more than their immediate problem or issue, be it the weather or their line of work. You hear lots about people and their lives and you have a chance to help them understand about their medication and their medical condition.”

Chris says the ability to work when he wants is the main perk of the job – and to keep in mind the travel involved and that it doesn’t suit everyone to live out of a suitcase. “I think the fear of this challenge of the unknown is what scares a lot of young pharmacists away from locum work and more particularly Emergency Locum work,” he says. “I would like to see every pharmacy graduate complete at least six months as a locum in rural or remote locations. It would be such an educative experience for them and would help relieve the shortage of pharmacists in these areas.”


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