The Path to Becoming a Pharmacist

the path to becoming a pharmacist

What does a pharmacist actually do?

You’ve probably seen them mysteriously standing behind the dispensary in a pharmacy. After some time (in which you’ve muttered ‘what’s taking them so long?’), they’ll come out to check your address, hand out your prescription, and send you off on your way.

But what on earth were they even doing?

In today’s ever-changing NHS landscape, pharmacists fulfil newer roles alongside more traditional jobs. When I worked as a GP pharmacist, I often had patients ask why I was checking their blood pressure or doing their asthma review, rather than a GP or practice nurse. They weren’t sure if I had the necessary qualifications or training when in reality this is a very basic part of my job.

Doctors and nurses have a solid knowledge of drugs, and certainly, the more experienced they are, the vaster the depth of that knowledge. Pharmacists, however, make it their business to question everything about medication usage.

We are often hailed as the ‘experts’ in medication, but what does this even mean?

A Pharmaceutical Education

In the UK, all pharmacy students undergo a four-year Master of Pharmacy degree (MPharm). Across these four years, we study a range of different sciences, including:

  • Structure and function of various body systems e.g. the cardiovascular system
  • Diseases and their effect on these systems e.g. high blood pressure
  • Pharmacokinetics (what the body does to the drug) and pharmacodynamics (what the drug does to the body)
  • Drug research and development
  • Professional principles of practice, including law and ethics

After we graduate, we undergo a further year of training called the pre-registration year. This is where we put our knowledge to the test, usually in either community pharmacy or hospital, and sit an exam at the end of this year.

Finally, after five long years, we’ve made it! There has been some discussion about combining the degree and pre-reg year into one comprehensive five-year degree like other professions, but this is not the norm at the moment.

Some pharmacists will opt to work in the pharma industry or in research, but the majority choose one of the three main areas of healthcare:

  • Community (your local chemist)
  • Hospital
  • Primary care (usually within a GP practice)

But still, you might ask, what do you even do all day?

The Skills of a Pharmacist

Across all three areas of pharmacy, pharmacists employ a set of skills to ensure the principles of medication management are met. These include:

  • Check the medication is clinically appropriate for a condition
  • Screen the dose, frequency of use, formulation of the drug, and many more parameters
  • Check for any interactions between drugs or other substances
  • Monitor blood test results and other clinical parameters to ensure the safety and efficacy of the regimen (not always practical in the community)
  • Make sure the patient or carer understands why they are taking their medication (might not be the case in hospital)
  • Use evidence-based sources to advise and answer queries from the wider care team and/or patients

There are other activities that might take up time depending on which sector the pharmacist is working in:

In community pharmacy—

  • Perform flu vaccinations (and now COVID-19 vaccinations)
  • Run travel clinics
  • Conduct emergency hormonal contraceptive consultations
  • Medicines Use Review and New Medicines Service consultations
  • Liaise with pharmaceutical suppliers to ensure delivery of medication stock
  • Supply medication for minor ailments that don’t require a GP appointment

In hospital pharmacy—

  • Attend ward rounds with the multi-disciplinary team (MDT)
  • Education of the MDT on appropriate medication prescribing
  • Reconcile inpatient drug charts with any medication taken before admission
  • Ensure the safe storage of patients’ own drugs
  • Accuracy check prescriptions in the hospital dispensary
  • Liaise with family members, care homes, and community pharmacies to ensure the safe transfer of care for medications

In general practice—

  • Conduct comprehensive medication reviews
  • Run long term disease clinics (e.g. high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes)
  • Run audits to ensure safe prescribing and local budgets are met
  • Reconcile discharge medication and any changes that might have happened during a hospital stay
  • Hold telephone helplines for patients and healthcare staff to answer any queries
  • Prescribe medication in their selected specialism (requires further training)

As you can see, this is can be quite a busy job! As professionals, we are also required to keep our practice up to date by attending training workshops and seminars.

Public perception of pharmacists is gradually changing to reflect the profession more accurately. Pharmacists work hard to achieve their qualifications and are knowledgeable clinicians. We train from both a scientific and clinical perspective like many of our healthcare colleagues to provide a patient-centred health service. I hope that you now have a better idea of the effort that goes into handing out your prescription!