Health View talks to pharmacist Mick Delaney about what brought him to the Torres Strait Islands, the role of his pharmacy and the essential services it provides to the local people, around 70 per cent of whom are from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.

Yours is an interesting career path. How did you come to be living in the Torres Strait?

After studying pharmacy in Melbourne, I completed my intern year at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city. One of the main attractions to studying pharmacy was that it was easy to get locum work. I worked in Alice Springs for two years and gained valuable experience working around Australia.

Eventually the travel bug took me overseas. I explored the world, got married and, when my wife and I returned home, decided against settling in suburbia. That’s when the opportunity arose to manage the Thursday Island Pharmacy. Originally our plan was to stay for two years but we fell in love with the lifestyle, the people and the community. When the owner decided to sell up, we bought the pharmacy and haven’t looked back.

How does Thursday Island Pharmacy benefit the community?

Thursday Island Pharmacy provides pharmacy services for 6,000 people living throughout the Torres Strait. There are 18 different islands in the area. We provide outreach visits to 15 clinics twice a year along with phone support to clinic nurses and health workers. We also provide blister-packed medications to over 500 clients.

Every year we get involved in local events. We take a day off and celebrate the annual Cultural Festival and this year we donned our favourite footy jerseys on Footy Colours Day to raise money for kids with cancer. We raise money to help out local families and we also sponsor an award for best science student in high school and give iPads to the two best science students in primary school.

How do you develop and structure your business to maximise its unique services and benefits?

At Thursday Island Pharmacy we have two core principles around which we base our decisions. One is employing the right people: we employ local people because they know the culture, customers and local languages. Our pharmacy is the largest non-government employer of Torres Strait Islanders in the region.

Number two is that whenever we introduce a new product or service we make sure it is sustainable. Locals get fed up with newly arrived ‘experts’ or so-called ‘specialists’. They tend to appear out of nowhere offering new services, then six to 12 months later they’re gone, never to be seen again. Sustainability is very important in this business.

You have a professional interest in ‘closing the gap’. What are the changes you think are needed to close the gap in indigenous health equality?

Firstly, you need to work with the community. It’s extremely challenging delivering services to remote patients where English is their second or third language and where there is no internet or phone communication. You have to be creative. I believe we do a good job at connecting with the locals, listening to their needs and providing the best services available.

Part of our success is our adaptability. If something isn’t working we can adjust very quickly. We wouldn’t be able to respond to needs if we were a government-funded provider. Generally, government organisations concern themselves with new hospitals, restructuring and coming up with new ways of doing the same thing. Throughout these changes, the patient continues to suffer. If we ran our business like that, we wouldn't have a business. Independence and working with communities helps to close the gap.

What’s the secret to attracting and retaining employees?

We work tirelessly to create a strong work culture. It’s an effective strategy – Thursday Island Pharmacy hasn’t directly advertised a position for over five years. The whole community is involved. The local high school teachers make recommendations and we employ students part-time. We also offer flexibility, encouraging staff to have a good work-life balance.

When it comes to staff retention we have a few different strategies we use. We offer training opportunities throughout the year, and we also work with our main partners (Pharmacy Alliance, Arrow and Pharmacy Guild) to fly their trainers up during the school holidays so the regular team can be off the floor training while our high school students work additional hours – it’s a win-win situation. We also encourage our pharmacists to attend Continuing Professional Development (CPD) events. We provide study leave and travel allowance for senior staff and pharmacists to attend CPD workshops and conferences.

Mick Delaney’s top five tips for running a successful pharmacy business

1. Respect and appreciate your staff.

2. Partner with the right people: bookkeepers, accountants, bank managers and suppliers.

3. Support your local community: hire local, shop local, sponsor local.

4. Analyse your business regularly: budgets, monthly reporting on P&L, projections and yearly planning.

5. Find your passion.

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