Following weeks of advocacy from pharmacy students, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has agreed to establish equal pay between pharmacy and health care student COVID-19 immunizers in the Lower Mainland.
In the original job postings, VCH offered $19.70 per hour for pharmacy student immunizer positions and $28.33 per hour for all other health care student immunizer positions.
John Lee, a third-year pharmacy student, expressed his frustration with the initial wage gap, stating that all pharmacy and health care immunizers are “doing the same type of work in COVID-19 vaccination clinics.”
“Seeing that inequity and wage disparity by [VCH] personally feels like they don’t see pharmacy students as health care students”, said Lee, who argued that they should be grouped together with the other health care immunizers.
“At the end of the day, we're all licensed and authorized by our colleges to provide injections.”
When asked for reasons behind the initial discrepancy in pay, a Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) communications representative originally declined to speak on the topic of pay at VCH.
But in a separate emailed statement, Peter Darbyshire, a communications officer for PHSA, confirmed that the students will now be paid the same rate.
“The rate previously shared was based on the regular hourly pay provided to pharmacy students for their other health-care student responsibilities,” Darbyshire wrote.
“As we broaden vaccine availability to additional populations in B.C., health-care student immunizers will continue to play a critical role in supporting us to deliver on our commitment to administer vaccines as safely and efficiently as possible to our communities.”
Dean of Pharmacy, Dr. Michael Coughtrie, affirmed the faculty’s full support for pharmacy students in this matter in a statement to The Ubyssey.
“Pharmacy plays an integral role in patient care overall,” he wrote. “I thank our students and all those involved in helping with the pandemic for their continued dedication.”
Pharmacy students feel they’re just seen as “pill counters”
But Lee felt that the wage gap was just another example of how pharmacy students and pharmacists are “seen as lesser compared to their health care allies.”
According to Lee, in mid-March, three pharmacy students from the Pharmacy Undergraduate Society Executive Council began the initiative to push for equitable pay in a letter to VCH. Lee said they received a response from the VCH declining to fix the wage discrepancy, but The Ubyssey was not able to see the response to verify this.
Lee then decided to take it upon himself to post on social media about the inequity to raise awareness. He said this incident has sparked a wider discussion about what pharmacists do for the public and their broader, pivotal role in patient care.
Lillian Chen, a third-year pharmacy student, spoke of the stereotype of the “pharmacists just being pill counters.” But she said pharmacists play a much greater role.
“We have over 40 weeks of experiential, educational practicums at pharmacies or hospitals and various non-direct patient care settings ... and then be have a lot of hours that we put into the pharmacy practice lab and to the inpatient centre.”
“Outside of dispensing medications, [pharmacists] provide compliance aids, adapt prescriptions, medication management, chronic disease management, from smoking cessation to injecting and immunizing routine vaccines.”
Chen echoed Lee’s point. “Pharmacists are healthcare workers,” said Chen. “It’s a critical part of a patient’s journey.”
Chen said working on the front lines in the pandemic stirred an internal anxiety quickly followed by growing fear.
“A lot of people were coming in and they were really scared of some of the symptoms that they’ve had, whether it was COVID or not,” said Chen.
This effort for equal wage is not about profit, Chen said.
“It's really just [about how] we know that we can be helpful to patients in this pandemic, and beyond. We know we have value to provide to the health care system and we want the opportunity to do so. We all want to be able to show our value.”
Community organizations like Immunize.io, non-profit organization that provides immunization consultation and vaccination administration to improve health through prevention, have also committed to equal pay for pharmacy student immunizers.
“We feel that there should be no discrimination against those who are working on the frontlines trying to make our communities healthy,” said Ajit Johal, clinical director and pharmacist with Immunize.io.
“At Immunize.io, we have had incredible contributions from fourth-year UBC pharmacy students at our outreach clinics and at our partner pharmacies. All health care student immunizers are valuable contributors to the COVID-19 vaccination efforts and represent the future of health care delivery in this province.”
Chen expressed her happiness with the change and how the pharmacy student community was able to have their voices heard and make a difference.
“I'm glad that we spoke up,” said Chen. “That's really reassuring to us as a student body – that we can make our voices heard and change the setting that we practice in.”