Meet Ashleigh Hutson from Wizard Pharmacy Casuarina, NT

Australia’s Pharmacy Assistant of the Year for 2021 and contributor to this magazine tells us about her pharmacy journey through three countries, her role and the team dynamics at the Northern Territory’s first Wizard Pharmacy, her PATY achievement, the highlights and challenges of her career, and the industry’s future as she sees it.

In three words, how would you describe pharmacy assistants? 

Compassionate, knowledgeable, frontline.

Tell us about your background and how you came to work in retail pharmacy. What is your current position/role?

I started working in community pharmacy when I was 15 for a company called Boots in the UK. I worked alongside an old family friend who my grandma had worked with during her pharmacy career, and she took me under her wing to show me the ropes in the pharmacy world. At around 19, I started working for Lloyd’s Pharmacy and trained as a dispense technician. Within that year, I became the dispensary manager and helped oversee the running of the north-east Lincolnshire community contracts, including private hospitals and mental health institutions. The job was very fast-paced, being under the NHS [National Health Service], but very rewarding. That was when I knew I’d found the right career industry.

Fast forward a few years. My partner was offered a contract to play cricket in New Zealand, and we packed our bags and left for what we thought would only be six months. During our stay in Christchurch, I worked in retail pharmacy for the Life Pharmacy group, which taught me a new perspective on the health industry, especially natural medicine.

After a year in this role, we moved to Australia, where I began working in retail pharmacy as the pharmacy manager and was sponsored to stay in the country. After many years in this role and forever growing my passion for the industry, I was offered the retail manager position for the first Wizard Pharmacy in the Northern Territory. I’ve been working with the company for the last 18 months.

Tell us about your pharmacy. What services does it offer? What types of customers typically come through its doors?  

Wizard Pharmacy Casuarina [in Darwin] is located in the largest shopping centre in the Northern Territory, which sees over eight million shoppers annually. The customers we see vary daily, as the centre attracts many different demographics. During the months of May to September, we have an increase in tourists as we’re in our peak dry season and often attract many customers from the large cruise ships that dock at the Darwin port for the day. As well as this, we have great customer loyalty, which we’ve grown since opening the store, and we see these customers on a regular basis.

Our store offers services such as vaccinations, including COVID and flu, supervised RATs, blood pressure testing, cardiovascular health checks and medical certificates. We also offer beauty services such as ear piercing and on-counter makeup applications. The store has a wide range of products that cater to all our shoppers’ needs, from pharmacy medications and vitamins to cosmetics, and fragrances and a huge giftware range, including brands such as Glasshouse and Anabel Trends.

How would you describe your pharmacy team? Do you work with other pharmacy assistants or other staff? 

We have an amazing team of 14, ranging from our pharmacists, pharmacy assistants, beauty consultant, customer success coordinator and junior pharmacy assistants. We’re a very diverse team, all from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, such as Australian, English, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Greek and Indian. But this makes us stronger as a team and proves apparent when servicing a widely diverse cultural town.

Within pharmacy, is there something you specialise in or have a particular interest in? I wear many hats in the pharmacy and find myself in different areas daily. This is why I love the industry, as each day brings new challenges. I pride myself on being able to lead my team to succeed in all aspects of the business and grow within the industry.

What have been some of the highlights in your career as a pharmacy assistant so far? 

The biggest highlight of my career has certainly been winning the national PATY award for 2021. This was such a huge achievement for myself and everyone I’ve worked with over the years who’ve helped me get to where I am today and connect with many talented people in the industry. The other highlight of my career is having the opportunity to work in three different countries within the industry. This has given me a wealth of knowledge that I’m able to use today to provide to the community.

What has the PATY experience been like for you since winning the national award? How has the title of Pharmacy Assistant of the Year impacted your career?

After winning the national title, my career has excelled and continues to. I was given the opportunity to embark on the journey as a retail manager for the flagship Wizard Pharmacy in the Northern Territory and also work more closely with the Pharmacy Guild.

What have been some of the outstanding moments and achievements during the PATY experience and beyond? 

Some outstanding moments include working and connecting with like-minded people within the industry and being an ambassador for pharmacy assistants across the country. I’ve also been given the opportunity to speak at national conferences and contribute articles from a pharmacy assistant’s perspective for Retail Pharmacy Assistants magazine. 

What has been the most challenging part of working as a retail pharmacy assistant? 

I think most pharmacy assistants will agree that the most challenging time we’ve all faced was during the peak of the pandemic. Being on the frontline in the industry to provide for our communities was extremely challenging for everyone with the risk factors involved, but our care and compassion for our customers got us through the worst times.

 As a pharmacy assistant, what impact do you hope to have within your community? 

As pharmacy assistants, we’re at the forefront of the healthcare industry. Our impact on the community allows accessible services and healthcare advice to grow great patient trust within our pharmacy.

More broadly, what impact do you think pharmacy assistants have within the wider pharmacy industry? 

Pharmacy assistants play a vital role within the industry. We are the people that liaise with the customers and drive the market in terms of what we advise and sell. Pharmacy assistants are the ones who assess the situation when a customer presents in-store and decide if they need to be referred to a pharmacist or even a GP. Without pharmacy assistants, pharmacists wouldn’t be able to achieve their greatest scope in offering the services they’re trained to carry out. As pharmacy assistants, we support them in doing so, to offer a greater experience to our customers. 

How important is ongoing professional development for retail pharmacy assistants? 

Ongoing professional development is extremely important to pharmacy assistants as it keeps their skills relevant and motivation high. With the industry forever changing, it’s important to keep up to date with the latest guidelines and knowledge to help them achieve their best potential when putting this into practice. It will also help pharmacy assistants gain confidence in their position and help them personally develop their professional skills to excel in their careers.

How would you describe working as a retail pharmacy assistant to anyone new to or considering the profession? 

Working as a retail pharmacy assistant is an extremely rewarding job. You’re face to face with your local community, helping them and their families with their healthcare and beauty needs and having an impact on their lives. You’re able to use your specific skill set to assist others in a vital area of concern, healthcare. By doing so, you feel a sense of purpose and reward.

What is your advice to other retail pharmacy assistants in terms of achieving career goals and stepping up within the industry? What is your advice to those PAs considering entering PATY? 

Personal development is a key factor in achieving career goals. You need to keep on top of the industry and keep up to date with all the changes we face. Putting yourself out there can be a daunting thing to do, but by doing so and connecting with other people in the industry, you’re opening more doors to different career pathways. This can be as easy as creating a LinkedIn page or even attending local conferences and making connections.

My best advice to anyone considering entering PATY is to do it! The thought of the competition can be daunting at first, but it’s an opportunity to showcase and celebrate pharmacy assistants and the amazing work we do. The whole process from start to finish is amazing and so much fun, and you’ll meet many like-minded superstars like yourself along the way.

Retail pharmacy (and the healthcare industry) has faced some serious challenges over the past few years. What has helped you and your team members get through these difficult times? What’s your advice on overcoming challenges? 

The dedication of my team is what I’d say kept us afloat during these tough times over the past few years. Everyone in the team had to adapt to new changes and challenges, but everyone did so with a smile on their face.

If you’re struggling with something, my best advice is to reach out to a team member, whether a leader, pharmacist or colleague and discuss the issue. Talk through it, and I can guarantee you there’ll be a solution.

Where do you see the industry headed in the next few years? 

I see the industry heading down more clinical pathways within stores. Pharmacists’ scope of practice is beginning to change, and more people are coming to pharmacies to access these services. Over the next few years, I believe everyone’s role will slightly change in pharmacy as we adapt to these new changes – changes I believe will benefit the industry.

What single change/improvement in the industry would you like to see? 

I would like to see more funding for pharmacies to access training. With the industry changing, pharmacists and pharmacy assistants should have more access to these training programs, which sometimes cost thousands of dollars. This would help see more pharmacy assistants become accredited and able to fulfil more duties within the pharmacy to enable our pharmacists to safely practise a larger scope without worrying about other aspects of the business.

This feature was originally published in the May issue of Retail Pharmacy Assistants e-magazine.