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Locum rates: 'If we all look for solutions we can move in the right direction'

It has been the best of times and the worst of times for locum rates over the past decade. Reece Samani shares his optimism about changes that could go some way to leaving everyone happy

Pay rates for locum pharmacists have been one of the most discussed topics in our industry in recent times.

While some industry leaders and pharmacy owners have suggested that locum rates are rising at unsustainable levels, many locum pharmacists feel that they are being squeezed or that any pay rise they have had is barely keeping up with rampant inflation.

It is an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I can empathise with both viewpoints: I have been a locum and I have hired locums.

For pharmacy owners, times have rarely been tougher. We all know funding for pharmacies was cut in 2017, and that was in less turbulent economic times, long before inflation rates topped 11% in October 2022.

Operating costs have risen, drug prices have increased. Footfall in some pharmacies has gone back up towards pre-COVID-19 levels in recent months, but that does not offset the funding cuts. In that context, it is easy to see why any increase in locum rates is challenging for managers and owners.

Read more: Average locum rate rises again as agency warns of market ‘squeeze’

I also know plenty of pharmacies have been accused of temporarily closing due to the difficulty in finding locums who are available and prepared to work at rates the pharmacy owners or managers feel they can afford.

None of us wants to see closures, and thousands of our colleagues – locums, permanent employees, managers and owners alike – work incredibly hard to keep pharmacies open and ensure they serve their communities.

On the other hand, I can fully understand the locums’ position. I’ve been there. Demands on locums have risen over the last two decades; the work is tough. The number of services they are expected to provide has increased significantly.

And, if you look back to the middle of the 2010s, C+D’s annual Salary Survey told a story of rapidly decreasing hourly rates. At their lowest, in 2016, the average locum pharmacist was getting just £20.50 an hour.

Locums, like all of the other staff working tirelessly in our industry, deserve fair remuneration for their hard work. So, locums naturally and rightly see any increase in pay that they have had as entirely justified. That applies even more at a time when everyone is seeing their food and energy bills and mortgages shoot up.

I can understand both parties, but the issue and the differences need to be addressed. We must try to work together as a whole industry to look for potential solutions, or for anything that might help move us towards a healthier balance, where locums feel they are getting the rates they deserve, but pharmacies feel they can afford those rates and stay open.

Read more: Locum pharmacists: Industry rate rises unsustainable, Numark director warns

Funding is a huge part of that. But there are perhaps other, smaller things that can be done to contribute to it, too. 

Ever since my first day working as a locum, I have felt that the system by which locums are booked brings with it some real inefficiency. The booking of locums still mostly takes place through agencies, which I feel presents problems for locums and pharmacies.

For the pharmacy, it often means they do not know who the locum is that they will get to cover the shift and how that person might fit in with their team. I think it also creates an unhealthy reliance on a third party and potentially wastes time. If a first agency cannot find someone to fill a shift, then a pharmacy manager has to ring around other agencies until they do. Then add to that the agency booking fee.

For locums, meanwhile, going through an agency can make it more difficult to negotiate pay. Some locums felt – and still feel – that some agencies even try to drive rates down.

I want to see a situation where the middleman is cut out. With the technology now available to us, that has become a reality. 

Read more: Locum pharmacists: Agencies predict what Christmas rates will look like

The solution I saw was an online platform where pharmacy owners and managers can quickly and easily post their available shifts and locums can directly contact them to tell them of their availability and talk about rates, which negates many of the issues mentioned above.

That direct contact means pharmacy owners only need to go to one source to find locums to fill shifts instead of calling multiple agencies, so they save time. It also means they build relationships with locums they trust. 

For locums, direct contact means they can negotiate rates and working conditions, safe in the knowledge that nobody else apart from them and the pharmacy manager has a say in how much they are earning. It also potentially gives locums more choice between different pharmacies so they can work where they feel the conditions are best.

Read more: Locum pharmacist rate woes: how much are they getting for shifts?

Finally, in a system without agency fees, there is less money going out of that system. That money can go towards upping rates for locums without costing the pharmacy a penny more overall.

Of course, replacing the middleman in locum bookings is not a panacea to all these issues. Funding and locum rates are complex problems and, as pharmacists, we’re well aware that miracle cures do not exist.

But I want to see a pharmacy ecosystem where both locums and those who are booking locums are happy with rates and conditions. I am an optimist, and I think if we all look for solutions we can move in the right direction.

Reece Samani is CEO of The Locum App and SignatureRx

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