Blame game deadlock leaves pharmacy grads ‘angry and broke’
It’s like the government found a way to make people work for free, says one graduate of 'unneeded' course
Siphiwo Vusani trained for two years to be a pharmacy technician and is now doing his six-month internship by working for free. Yet Vusani doesn’t expect to get a job because the qualification does not exist in law. He and 325 other students have completed a two-year diploma at the Nelson Mandela University set up in 2013. But they cannot work as technicians because of an eight-year deadlock between the department of health and SA pharmacy council (SAPC) in setting up a legal document outlining their responsibilities. This document is called the scope of practice.
All medical professionals are regulated by a scope of practice determining what they can and can’t do in their line of work.
The pharmacy technician scope of practice was first drafted in 2011 by the SA pharmacy council (SAPC) and submitted to the department of health in 2013, the council told Times Select. It has never been signed into law by the health minister.
The two-year pharmacy technician course was designed by the SAPC to create midlevel workers with more training than a pharmacy assistant, but less qualified and expensive than a pharmacist.
Midlevel workers have been promoted by health experts and the university as a cheaper means to enact National Health Insurance.
In 2013, the university began teaching the two-year qualification that costs above R60,000 in total.
It has now suspended the 2019 intake because of the delay in publishing regulations.
University spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said the situation was “extremely concerning and not something that Mandela University takes lightly”.
NMU has tried to resolve the lack of publication for years. She explained students could work as pharmacy assistants called a “post-basic assistant”, an existing qualification, but admitted the remuneration would be much lower than that of a technician. She said students were warned of the “challenges” from 2016.
Vusani said in 2017 university students raised their concerns about the scope of practice delay, but representatives from the SAPC and the department of health blamed each other.
“It was a blame game for months.”
Pharmacy technician interns have to complete a six-month internship to graduate, but he said if they were lucky enough to get a learnership, they still weren’t paid. “All other health professionals get paid for internships, but they say we don’t have a scope of practice so they [don’t pay]. If you don’t have a person supporting you, you might as well ... [give up]. It’s like the government found a way to make people work for free.
“I am angry and broke.”
Technicians can work as pharmacy assistants, but then they might as well have trained to do this through a cheaper part-time two-year qualification done while working at a retail pharmacy, often resulting in a job. It doesn’t require a six-month unpaid internship. Chairperson of the Pharmacy Society of SA Ivan Kotze criticised the SAPC council for its role in creating the technician course and accrediting it.
“They allowed this process and created an expectation there will be something [a profession] for the students to work in.”
Registrar of SAPC Amos Masango called the delay publishing the scope of practice “unfortunate” and said it “constantly engages” the relevant health department officials.
Masango said: “While we had anticipated the legislative process to be thorough, we had not expected the delays to be as prolonged as they have been.”
Health department spokesperson Popo Maja said its problem was that technicians weren’t needed. “South Africa already has middle-level workers in the form of pharmacy assistants. These assistants are effective in performing their functions in both the public and private healthcare sectors.”
Maja said: “The initial proposal from the SAPC was that this category would become obsolete and assistants will have to translate to a technician category. This will cause a disruption to the health system and those already qualified as assistants.”
He said the new category of technicians could do more and would earn higher salaries and cost the state more. He said the department of health eventually agreed with the council to allow the technicians, but that resulted in changes to the laws that reflected the difference between the pharmacy assistants and technicians. “It is important that persons already registered as pharmacists’ assistants are not disadvantaged by the introduction of the new category. The draft regulations will be published for public comment in the next few weeks.”
In the meantime, the students feel betrayed. A letter written to the university in 2017 said: “Some students are from rural areas and have been put through school by their communities and parents ... who will also be waiting to see their sacrifices pay off, but students will not ... be able to give back.”