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Pharmaceutical Assistants respond to PSI Council decision to redefine ‘temporary absence’ rules

Members of the Pharmaceutical Assistants Association (PAA) from all parts of the country took part in a planned walk-out from the public gallery after the PSI Council decided in September to adopt a new set of rules relating to the temporary absence of a pharmacist.

Irish Pharmacy News reached out to PAA members for reaction. Deirdre Lynch is the secretary and media spokesperson for the group. She has been qualified to dispense medication for fourty years. The decision means that Lynch and her colleagues will no longer be permitted to dispense medication, save for one hour per day, to facilitate a lunch break for the pharmacist. “We are all very emotional. We don’t think the Council were fair to us today. We don’t think they have been properly informed.”

The members say that their qualification has been downgraded as a result of the decision and many believe the situation has been handled very badly, leaving pharmaceutical assistants and the pharmacists – who wish to continue employing them in their current capacity – in a difficult and upsetting position. PAA claim that redundancies and rural pharmacy closures will likely follow as a result of this move.

Pauline Kavanagh is a pharmaceutical assistant from Dublin. “We’ve spoken to politicians, doctors, and pharmacists and nobody, except the PSI and the Council, can see the justification for what they are doing. We have have met with the Minister for Health several times and even he seems puzzled by it. Nobody can figure out why. I think the Council members really just don’t understand what we do. This time last year they gave us a licence to [practice]. If they don’t believe we are accountable that is for them to address. We have no problem being accountable or being subject to CPD and fitness to practice inquiries. If they were a proper regulator none of this would be an issue. It takes about three minutes to dispense a prescription so by allowing us to dispense for even just one hour, by their own reasoning, they are being negligent to the public. Rather than regulating us like they did the pharmacists, they are just getting rid of us.”

Historically, PAs would have covered pharmacists’ days off and often worked weekends. A report from the PSI working group on temporary absence claims that the agreement between PAA and the PSI (in its earlier format) “which was a mechanism of stipulating an agreed position or understanding of what constituted temporary absence” was not always adhered to. As a result, “legal certainty along with clear accountability pathways did not prevail.” PSI claim that PAs are not accountable as they are not subject to CPD requirements, nor can they be brought in front of a fitness to practice inquiry. PAA members say they are happy to be subject to both CPD and fitness to practice, but say that rather than taking the time and effort to regulate them, the PSI are simply de-professionalising them.

Dr Marita O’Brien produced a Human Right and Equality Impact Assessment of the proposed draft rules. An excerpt presents the results of a survey they carried out on 160 pharmacists.

“[P]harmacist respondents working with pharmaceutical assistants on a day to day basis, observing their practice, over many years, view pharmaceutical assistants to be as competent as they are, as evident in their assessment of pharmaceutical assistants under the PSI Competency Framework. Under S.I. No 488, pharmacy owners and superintendent pharmacists are acknowledged experts of the knowledge and skills their staff should have. The evidence from this research is that they are satisfied that the pharmaceutical assistants they employ to act in their absence, practice in professional, safe and ethical ways as observed by […] pharmacist respondents.”

Some PAA members expressed the view that the information supplied to Council members did not adequately reflect their level of expertise, given that the NARIC report (which was drawn up to assess their accreditation) did not take account of the years of experience built up since the workers were awarded their qualification, equating it to Leaving Certificate level, a point that the workers question fundamentally. Members of the PAA who spoke with IPN said that despite strong support from some Council members, they were more or less being “swept out the door,” describing the attitude of the PSI towards them as “flippant”, “dismissive” and “patronising”.

One PAA member told IPN that when the nursing qualification changed, nurses with an historical qualification were still permitted to practice. The PAA want to know why they were they not afforded a similar arrangement that would have allowed the workers affected to be naturally allowed to retire, especially given that all 248 people affected (98% of whom are women) are all over the age of 55.

One woman told IPN that she has been working for the same pharmacist for 17 years. “The pharmacists we work for employ us because they know we have expertise. They know we are experienced. The pharmacist I work for would prefer to have me on than a locum because I know the customers. I know what medications they had last week, I know what age they are, I know their history.” One member of the PAA told IPN that few people can think of a profession that is asking to be regulated.

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