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PJ Online | News feature: What is a pharmacy locum worth and is pay determined by supply and demand?

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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 269 No 7226 p773
30 November 2002

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News feature

What is a pharmacy locum worth and is pay determined by supply and demand?

Locum pharmacists’ pay does not seem to be solely governed by supply and demand. Michael Thompson (on the staff of The Journal) tries to find out just what a locum pharmacist is worth


Pharmacies must be kept open during working hours, six days a week, although there are signs that locum shortages are making this harder

Community pharmacies depend on the availability of locum pharmacists, be they young and recently qualified, retired and vastly experienced, or simply pharmacists who prefer the flexibility of working when they want to and not when they don't.

The reason for this dependence is simple: the National Health Service contract stipulates that pharmacies must be open from 9am until 5.30pm Monday to Saturday, with the exception of local early closing days, in which case they may close at 1pm. Hours less than this are only permitted by agreement with primary care trusts, which must be satisfied that services are available elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

This means that community pharmacies cannot close or withdraw services simply because the pharmacist wants a day off. Only in the case of illness or "other reasonable cause" can a pharmacy be closed. In such circumstances, the proprietor is expected to make an arrangement with another pharmacy for services to be available there.

The number of pharmacists who choose to be locums has risen steadily in recent years, for a wide variety of reasons. Together with the shortfall in the pharmacy workforce it might be expected they would be able to demand the highest fees ever. But is that expectation matched in reality and how much is a locum worth?

The answer, as one might expect, depends on who you ask and where you look, and there are some indications that the laws of supply and demand are not working in the normal ways.

Syd Bashford, a pharmacist who deliberately keeps a short diary so he can be available as an emergency locum, says that the standard rate for pre-booked locums is ?17.50 an hour and ?22 for an emergency (short notice) booking. He adds that sometimes the rates can be higher, reaching ?22 for pre-booked Saturday jobs and ?25 for Saturday emergency locums.

However, Mr Bashford's website (www.pharma-syd.co.uk) says that his standard rate — he claims only to accept bookings up to two weeks in advance — is £30 an hour plus travelling expenses.

Lloydspharmacy, one of the larger employers of locums, is reported to have written to a number of locum agencies saying that it will not pay more than £17 an hour. Andy Murdock, superintendent pharmacist for Lloydspharmacy, does not remember seeing the letter, but he confirmed that Lloydspharmacy had set a rate of £17 an hour, adding: "That doesn't mean that we will not be flexible. We will always try to get a locum, but we will not be held to ransom to pay extortionate rates."

He said that Lloydspharmacy would always ensure that there was a pharmaceutical service, possibly by transferring prescriptions from one pharmacy to another, where they could be dispensed and then delivered to patients' homes. "The actual operation of the pharmacy will be curtailed," he said, "but essential dispensing will continue."

The question whether this will result in locums not working for Lloydspharmacy remains to be seen but the issue of what locums ask for and what they actually get is clearly an important one.

Ruth Glassman, who runs Capital Locums (www.capitallocums.co.uk), explained that rates, and flexibility, vary from com-pany to company and from multiples to independents.

She indicated that independent pharmacies are often prepared to pay whatever they have to in order to get the locums they need. Multiples, however, often had set rates and might consider closing the branch if they could not get a locum for what they were willing to pay.

Locum rates at Tesco, for example, range from ?17.50 an hour on weekdays in its least busy pharmacies, to ?23 an hour on Sundays and bank holidays in its busiest pharmacies.

If enough locums are willing to work for fixed low rates of pay pharmacy services will continue to be provided in the usual manner, but if significant numbers say "no" to low rates there may be difficulties ahead.

However, there are many reasons for there to be problems in finding locums to staff pharmacies. General workforce shortages are universal although in some parts of the country, particularly rural areas, the shortages, and therefore the difficulties, are more acute. Nevertheless, temporary pharmacy closures are not taken lightly by primary care trusts.

Alima Batchelor, pharmaceutical adviser at Oldbury and Smethwick PCT, confirmed that there had been occasions on which she had been told that stores were to be closed because no locums were available.

She was unable to confirm why they were not, but said that they will be viewing last minute closures more closely in future. "If this does turn out to be a national problem then chains that do this will start to receive letters reminding them of their obligations."

John Florey, of Sussex Downs and Weald PCT, which deals with pharmacy contract matters for five local PCTs, said that there have been problems with one company saying that it could not get locums and closing stores at short notice.

"We treat this as a serious matter," he said. "If it continues, it will be monitored and they could be brought to task under the terms of service."

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