Pharmacy down under: what to consider if you want to work in Australia

Sea, sun and surf — Australia seems like the ultimate place to live and work. Here are what UK pharmacists need to consider before making the move.
Pharmacy down under: what to consider if you want to work in Australia

There are many reasons for UK pharmacists to consider relocating to Australia: it is an English-speaking country, with beachside cities and pleasant weather, as well as an outdoorsy lifestyle.

However, moving overseas can be a costly and lengthy process, so it is important to consider the following factors when making a decision.

1. Quality of life

Australia offers a good quality of life comparable to the UK’s, although it does come with increased living costs. Groceries, rent and utilities are more expensive in Australia than in the UK, but wages are generally high enough to compensate.

Pharmacists in Australia are well-respected healthcare professionals and are easily accessible to the public. As of January 2021, pharmacists on average can earn AU$77,718 (£44,265) per year. Those willing to work in rural areas can expect a higher salary.

2. Applying for a visa

Before making the move, working rights in the form of an Australian working visa will need to be arranged. There are several options to choose from, depending on age and planned duration of stay in Australia. 

A Working Holiday visa (subclass 417) is open to all UK citizens aged 18–30 years, and is valid for up to 3 years depending on how much specified work experience is completed during this time. This includes at least three months of critical COVID-19 work in the healthcare and medical sectors, anywhere in Australia.

There are a few other visa options available for individuals who may be ineligible for the Working Holiday visa: for example, the Skilled Occupation List.

As of January 2021, the cost associated with acquiring a visa ranges from AU$485 (£273) for a Working Holiday visa to AU$4,045 (£2,280) for a General Skilled Migration visa. The processing time also varies from 3 months for the Working Holiday visa to 18 months for the General Skilled Migration visa.

The Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs website has a full list of visa options, costs and processing times.

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be travel and visa restrictions in place and so it is important to check for updates regularly.

3. Registration process and cost

It can take a minimum of one year to become registered as a pharmacist in Australia and can cost approximately AU$5,000 (£2,762) in total.

In order to work and register, UK-qualified pharmacists must acquire a competency stream skills assessment letter from the Australian Pharmacy Council, the national pharmacy accreditation authority. The steps involved are summarised in Box: Steps to registration.

Box: Steps to registration

1. Apply for an eligibility check

Each candidate must have their eligibility to apply for registration in Australia checked by the Australian Pharmacy Council (APC). This involves submitting documentation including a first aid certificate and Certificate of Good Standing from the General Pharmaceutical Council. It can take up to eight weeks for the eligibility check to be approved and costs AU$1,260 (£696).

2. Sit the Competency Assessment of Overseas Pharmacists (CAOP) written exam

This exam assesses prior pharmacy knowledge. It is an online, open-book, multiple choice question exam held at various test centres in Australia, New Zealand and the UK four times per year. Candidates can register to sit the exam via the APC candidate portal. 

Useful revision aids include the Australian Medicines Handbook and Australian Pharmaceutical Formulary. There are past sample papers available on the APC website and the style of questions is similar to the UK preregistration pharmacist exam, covering calculations and clinical questions.

The CAOP costs AU$1,845 (£1,019) and involves a four-week wait for results.  

3. Apply for limited registration

After passing the CAOP exam, the APC will issue candidates their Competency Stream (CAOP) Skills Assessment Letter needed to apply for ‘limited registration for supervised practice’ with the Pharmacy Board of Australia (PBA), the body responsible for regulating Australian pharmacists. This application includes criminal history checks, proof of English language competency and a CV, among other documents. The application costs AU$164 (£91) plus the cost of limited registration for one year (AU$328 [£181]). Processing time is approximately two months and candidates will need to find an employer with a pharmacist willing to supervise them while they complete their supervised practice.

4. Complete supervised practice hours and oral examinations

Once all documentation has been assessed by the PBA, candidates will be assigned a specific number of supervised practice hours to complete depending on experience, up to the usual Australian preregistration training maximum of 1,824 hours. Candidates will also need to pass two oral examinations: one on pharmacy practice and the other on pharmacy law and ethics. The oral exams are both held once per month and cost AU$225 (£124) each. The oral exams are thorough, covering knowledge of medications, over-the-counter scenarios and overcoming clinical problems, as well as knowledge of medication scheduling, ethical scenarios and the prescription legalities in Australia. Depending on the PBA’s assessment of the application and which state candidates are applying for registration in, individuals may only need to complete the oral exam on law and ethics, not pharmacy practice. The PBA will provided suggested reading for the exams.

5. Apply for general registration

Once all requirements have been met, candidates are able to apply for general registration as a pharmacist through the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency, which supports the PBA. General registration costs around AU$492 (£272) per year depending on which state registration is being sought in, and takes approximately one to two months to process.

An additional cost to consider is professional indemnity insurance, which is a Pharmacy Board of Australia requirement for registration. This is approximately AU$289 (£160) per year.

4. Pharmacy practice in Australia

There are several notable differences when working in Australia, including different scheduling of medicines. For example, Ventolin (GSK; salbutamol) is classified as a ‘pharmacist-only medication’. This means it can be supplied from a pharmacy without a prescription under the supervision of a pharmacist. Some of the different minor ailments commonly managed by pharmacists over the counter are spider and tick bites, which the Australian first aid course covers well.

Extemporaneous compounding of medications is provided by many community pharmacies after appropriate training. This is often in the form of capsules, creams, suspensions and pessaries. More complex compounding exists in pharmacies too, such as sterile preparations including injections and eye drops.

There is also a big emphasis on preventative therapy and nutritional supplementation in community pharmacy. Pharmacists will develop a greater understanding of nutritional biochemistry and the benefits of complementary therapy in helping people with their medical conditions, alongside their regular medications. Supplements are very popular in Australia, with some complementary medicine brands labelled ‘For practitioner dispensing only’, meaning it can only be supplied to the patient after consultation with a healthcare practitioner.

In Australia, UK citizens are eligible to apply for Medicare, which allows benefits under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, meaning access to subsidised medication costs and GP visits. Pharmacists can choose to further subsidise medications for patients at their discretion, leading to a rise in ‘discount pharmacies’. This differs to the standard set NHS charge on government-subsidised medications across all UK pharmacies, and can be challenging for small independent pharmacies to compete with.

5. Career progression

In terms of where a pharmacy degree can take you, individuals can further their career in several areas.

Many overseas pharmacists gain employment in hospital pharmacies, with or without previous hospital experience. Other options include working with pharmaceutical companies and the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the medicines regulator. In the community setting, becoming a locum pharmacist can be an interesting, mind-broadening career because individuals can choose to work short stints across Australia. This is a good opportunity to learn more about providing healthcare services in indigenous communities, and the joys and challenges of working in rural, isolated parts of Australia, as well as busier coastal areas. Something to be aware of is the different pharmacy laws across the states of Australia, so revision on the law before working in a different state is needed. Some pharmacists train to become accredited consultant pharmacists, who can provide home medicine reviews for patients, liaising with their doctors to offer helpful input into a patient’s care.

Despite the increased cost of living, Australia is a beautiful, safe country and is recommended as a great place to live and work as a pharmacist.

Additional information:

About the author:

Edel O’Connor

Edel O’Connor

Edel O’Connor moved to Australia in 2017 after completing three years’ postgraduate experience working in medicines safety and regulation and as a locum community pharmacist.

Edel is happy to be contacted for more information through Linkedin or Instagram @edeloconnor 

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Pharmacy down under: what to consider if you want to work in Australia;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2021.1.28134

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