Michael Stewart: What I wish I’d known
Michael Stewart, 36, is an information pharmacist for Numark in Tamworth, offering support to independent pharmacy teams. He reflects on his 15 years in the industry
I qualified as a pharmacist in 1999 from the University of Wales in Cardiff and did my pre-registration with Lloydspharmacy in Coventry. I had originally wanted to study pharmacology, but I was told I would have a guaranteed job if I went into pharmacy, which was true at the time. I was part of what they called the fallow year, because the degree course changed from three years to four when I started. This created a year of no new pharmacists, so we were in high demand when we graduated.
I finished my pre-registration year in 2000 and worked as a relief manager for a short while, before moving into locuming. I worked for all the major multiples, particularly Rowlands, the Co-operative Pharmacy and Lloydspharmacy around the South Yorkshire and Nottingham area.
After doing this for about three years, I moved to Buttercups Training as a pharmacist assessor. There, I assessed NVQ level 2, level 3 and MDCA coursework and helped pharmacy staff to pass their qualifications. In 2011, I moved to Numark, where my line manager and I set up the information department to support member pharmacies by providing them with key updates and changes in the sector. The department has since expanded to four staff members and now includes an online CPD service.
... you are constantly learning
I would consider myself an experienced pharmacist but I still undertake training. I have learnt more since leaving university and doing a pre-registration year than I ever did during that time.
Throughout my three years at university, I learned a lot about chemistry and biology, but that information was quite hard to relate to actual practice. When you start your pre-registration year, you begin dispensing drugs that you’ve been learning about and only then does it start to fall into place. But you can’t learn everything you need to know about being a pharmacist in your pre-registration year, either. You learn the basics, and then over the years you get better at being a pharmacist.
You have to constantly update your knowledge, especially in my job. This year alone has seen the safety information change for about seven or eight drugs, such as codeine. This is something you need to keep on top of in order to provide the best advice and the best care for patients.
Really it’s all about knowing how to make professional decisions in practice and how to deal with the time pressure that’s on you, while still getting it right.
... communication skills come with time
My degree didn’t prepare me for talking to patients. Communication should form part of the degree. That said, you can read all about communication skills – what you should and should not do – but putting it into practice is the only way you will learn.
I get queries from different people every day – from pharmacists to technicians and counter assistants. It’s this audience that you need to keep in mind when getting your information across. It’s crucial to help them to understand it. It’s very easy to spout technical language, but if no-one understands, then you’re just wasting your breath.
As a graduate, I didn’t understand that. I thought: “That’s it, I’ve been trained and I know what I’m doing.” But it soon dawned on me that there’s a lot more to it. Until you actually have an interaction with someone who can tell you, “sorry, I don’t understand that, can you rephrase it?” you won’t learn. In reality, they never say that to you, they just look blankly and you have to work out that they don’t know what you’re talking about and try again. You soon learn your limitations.
... there are other qualifications beside degrees
There are so many opportunities out there. University set me on a path to community pharmacy and no other options were really suggested. But even within community pharmacy, there is a wide variety of roles you can do.
If I had my time again, I would do a clinical diploma and I would probably have a prescribing qualification. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to consider doing one now because I have a family, a mortgage and other commitments. But as a budding young pharmacist you have all the time in the world, so I would definitely have made more of those opportunities.
5 dos and don'ts
1. Do explore different options and qualifications
When you start your career, you don’t really know which direction you will take. Although I was involved in work experience placements, I don’t think that a couple of weeks in a pharmacy can give you a full idea of what the profession is actually like. I don’t think I would have considered medical information as a career path until later on, and university almost brainwashed me because it was assumed you would become a community pharmacist. But actually, I really enjoy supporting pharmacists and directing them instead of dealing with patients face to face.
...never assume anything
You can’t assume the patient knows what you’re talking about, you can’t assume the patient has taken the medicine, you can’t assume that the doctor has prescribed it correctly, and you can’t assume the technician has dispensed it accurately. Always check and make sure you have satisfied yourself that what you’re doing is right.
If something is niggling at me when I’m checking a prescription, I always have to check, because otherwise errors are made.
...you must be prepared for a more clinical role
The profession has changed since I graduated and it is more difficult to secure a job. Data shows that today’s checking technicians are more accurate than pharmacists because they are focused solely on checking accuracy, rather than the legal and clinical aspects that pharmacists also have to consider. Therefore, a pharmacist’s job is drifting towards a more clinical role, which should be embraced.
I’ve recently been trained to do the flu vaccination service and I’ve really enjoyed delivering it. I think we should all be doing this as pharmacists. The profession needs to develop, and pharmacists need to become prescribers and gain these extra clinical skills. We need to extend beyond the role that’s been seen by some as just a tablet counter working behind a dispensary bench. We are too well trained to limit ourselves to this role.