Caitlin Davies went into her James Cook University pharmacy degree looking for rural adventure. So it’s fitting her working week can entail helicopter flights to clinics on Australia’s northernmost island communities.
Caitlin and her husband, Rees, relocated from Mount Isa to Thursday Island six years ago with their two young sons, Chase and Bailey, hoping for new experiences and more time together as a family.
“We moved up with a four-year-old and a one-year-old, and it’s been the best decision ever,” says Caitlin, who’s originally from Townsville. “We moved for Rees’s job [as an electrician with Ergon Energy] and we stayed for mine.”
A typical day in a remote pharmacy
Caitlin is a partner in the Thursday Island and Bamaga pharmacies, which service a vast area taking in Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands. A typical day at work can involve counselling and handling patient prescriptions in the retail pharmacy, as well as dispensing medication destined for the Queensland Health clinics on the outer Torres Strait Islands as part of the remote supply side of the business. “We're in helicopters most weeks going out to the clinics to do our support visits,” she says. “We’re managing patient profiles with changes that get emailed through from our GPs, pharmacists are checking medications and organising transport on flights and barges to make sure the medications are going to get to the island communities in time. We spend our days doing what most pharmacists would love to be doing: collaborating with other health professionals in our region.”
Caitlin’s path to pharmacy
A high school chemistry teacher who was studying pharmacy inspired Caitlin to apply to JCU’s pharmacy degree. Placements in Mount Isa and the Burdekin during her undergraduate studies confirmed her interest in working in the country. She graduated in 2007, completed her intern year in Townsville and headed back to Mount Isa for two years. She loved the work, where ‘you can be busy but still relaxed’. When the family moved to Thursday Island, Caitlin worked at the pharmacy part-time before getting the opportunity to go into partnership in the Thursday Island and Bamaga pharmacies.
Weekends in the Strait
On weekends, Caitlin loves to get out on the water and spend time with family: “We moved to get a little bit better work-life balance, or life-work balance. We get to spend more time together and we get to do things as a family. There's less stress. We spend a lot of time fishing, camping and out in the boat. We can do more sport with the kids, outrigging, those types of things where logistically we don't have to worry. Everything's about two minutes away so we're not trying to plan things around how long it's going to take to get somewhere. It's just making the choice about what we're going to do, and getting it done.”
Most useful skill in a remote pharmacy
“It's not necessarily something that's taught, but when you live somewhere where there is a focus on rural health, you learn a lot quicker to expect something that's a little bit more unexpected, and to be able to work on the fly and adjust things as you're going. At JCU there was a strong focus on getting students who would be willing to go back to remote areas and I think we had a lot of people with the same sort of mindset, that if something doesn't work, we'll adapt and try other ideas.”
Friendship and community
For Caitlin, the most rewarding part of being a pharmacist in a remote area is ‘being part of a community and the quality of the friendships you make’. “We get to know people a little bit more closely. Whether it's through sport, work or school, we become intertwined in their lives a little bit more than we would anywhere else. Probably the biggest benefit is the large interprofessional collaboration network we have up here that we don't get in a lot of other places. Our communication with GPs and other health professionals is extremely good.”
“There are a number of health challenges in the Torres Strait, in particular diabetes and the complications that can steam from that. We are always trying to adapt our pharmacy and services to best suit our communities’ needs.” Another challenge is recruiting pharmacists who are willing to work in remote areas, Caitlin says. “But I don't find as many challenges as I do rewards.”
Advice for aspiring pharmacists
“My advice is not to be scared to go somewhere out of your comfort zone. You might get paid more as a rural pharmacist, you might get other incentives, but a lot of the time the actual positive of working in a rural or remote place is the bigger opportunity to make better connections, to understand the job a little bit better and to upskill quicker than in other places. I think people get too scared of the negatives rather than the opportunities it could bring. I think if pharmacists gave rural life a go they would find it far more rewarding than they anticipated.”