Cairns local, Melissa Gibson, can testify to the fact that it’s never too late to pursue your dream job. After an unexpected start in community pharmacy as an assistant in the early 2000s, Melissa was eager for more. Life got in the way for a while, but the passion remained. Determined to become a pharmacist, Melissa was preparing to move to Townsville to commence study, when the process suddenly got simpler. Thanks to JCU’s expanding course offerings into Cairns and Mackay this year, pharmacy came to Melissa.
The moment you meet Melissa, you can tell she has a lot more experience and understanding in pharmacy than you’d expect from a first-year undergraduate student. She’s spent almost two decades working in hospital and community pharmacy settings and is currently working at Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service. Her journey towards pharmacy began almost by accident, while she was working as a beauty therapist in Sydney in the early 2000s.
“I was in beauty therapy because it felt like the closest I could get to a job in health,” Melissa says. “My role involved setting up and managing a day spa. The owner was expanding into pharmacies as part of a combined health and beauty model. While waiting for the salon to be built, I was working on the pharmacy floor and I absolutely loved it. I was like, ‘why haven’t I thought of doing this before?”
It was in that environment Melissa saw the wide range of scope of a pharmacist’s role and the contribution they make in providing access to treatments and improving community health.
“It was an amazing environment to be in. We were one of the first community pharmacies to do HIV medication to patients coming out of the state system. It made me excited to become a pharmacist. Pharmacy contributes greatly to people's healthcare journey both independently and as part of a broader healthcare team,” Melissa says.
“Working as a pharmacy assistant has fuelled my desire to study further and do what I knew I would love doing. You know, when people ask me that old question, ‘what would you do if you won the lotto and money was no longer an object?’ I’d still be pursuing a career in pharmacy." Melissa Gibson, JCU Pharmacy Student.
Seeing the full ‘iceberg’ of a pharmacist’s role
With the expanding scope of the pharmacy assistant role – which doesn’t require a degree – Melissa has been asked the question, ‘isn’t this role enough to satisfy your passion?’ But Melissa knew she wanted more.
“There was a sense of ‘should I go and commit the next five years of my life to study?’ Essentially, I’m going to come out as a 50-year-old intern. There was that decision, do I want to spend the next five years doing that? And I decided, yes. I think for me, I needed to get that qualification. I’d had the taste of pharmacy, but I needed to dig further.”
Melissa did a bridging course in maths and chemistry to prepare for her degree, which she commenced in 2021. She is one of twenty-one students blazing a trail in Cairns, alongside those in Mackay, as the first intake for a Bachelor of Pharmacy offered by JCU outside of Townsville.
As students of JCU’s Pharmacy course quickly discover, the role of a pharmacist is extremely multi-faceted. There is much more to it than the common misconception of simply ‘putting labels on pill bottles’, as Melissa knows.
“It's like an iceberg. You only see the tip of what they do, but there is so much under the surface in terms of clinical judgment, compounding and dispensing, and considering patients’ needs. As pharmacists, we're the custodians of medicine. We need to make sure that they're used safely and appropriately, and at the right times.
“In hospitals, pharmacists are as valued as doctors. It is exciting to me that JCU takes us to that level of professionalism that I believe is on par with other medical and dental professionals,” Melissa says.
Choosing a university that is making rural health matter
Being a north Queensland girl born and raised, Melissa was eager to stay in the region for both study and work. It’s one of the reason’s JCU’s in-person study option in Cairns was a lot more attractive than the online alternatives.
“I looked at doing uni online. But I wanted to stay north after study, so it made sense to study here. I couldn’t imagine going to a metropolitan university that would not necessarily understand what we do up here, and what’s needed up here. That wouldn't sit well with me. It wouldn't seem like I'm learning what I need to learn about where I'm going to be, where I live, or where I'm going to practice,” Melissa says.
Her experience living and working in Cairns has convinced Melissa of the benefits to be gained as a pharmacist addressing the needs of a regional community.
“I think the difference in the cities is that there is often not an understanding of what it’s like regional, rural or remote. I think it's unique to being in an area and living it and feeling it. And even an understanding of who First Nations people truly are, and the complexities and barriers to their health and their needs,” Melissa says.
JCU produces highly sought-after, work-ready graduates with a focus on regional, rural, remote, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. Being a part of the health system in Far North Queensland has given Melissa a passion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
“I’ve worked in that space quite a bit, particularly in renal health. Illnesses of the kidney are a major concern for First Nations people. Working in renal and dialysis at Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service has strengthened the desire to help close the health gap,” Melissa says.
“I think you have to be a different kind of clinician when you’re in a rural or remote area, and you have to think outside the box. I believe JCU Pharmacy is definitely going to prepare me for that.”
As Melissa will tell you, the course has a strong focus on practical training. Next semester, she and her classmates will undertake their very first placements in community pharmacies across the greater Cairns region.
“I think it's important for us to get that exposure early. I am really looking forward to the first placement. It’s been a little while since I’ve been in community pharmacy and I know things have changed in terms of new practices in a number of treatments. It is really exciting. Once upon a time, you were either community or hospital, and I think that was it. But now there are many growth areas and a lot of options for pharmacy graduates,” Melissa says.
Job-ready and in demand
The demand for pharmacists continues to grow. According to the Graduate Outcomes Survey 2020, pharmacy was ranked as the number one undergraduate study area in Australia for graduate full-time employment. Working in a hospital setting, Melissa has seen the need for pharmacists, and she knows there is no shortage of opportunities, particularly outside metropolitan areas.
“The number of pharmacists needed in the public health sector seems to be expanding exponentially,” Melissa says. “There is a great opportunity to work in regional, rural and remote areas because the need is so great for us to be there. I think you’re pretty much always going to be guaranteed a job as a pharmacist!”
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