More than just medicine
My pharmacy degree was completed in 1993 at the University of London School of Pharmacy. In many ways it was an innovative degree – unlike courses at many other universities, it included modules on communication skills and how to talk to both patients and staff.
Our education also included role play, to prepare us properly for the situations we might face in the pharmacy. We even experimented with patient consultation rooms – years before they became mainstream.
There was a focus on social care and public health – the tutors on the course were unusual at the time because they saw pharmacy as about far more than just learning about medicines. It wasn’t so much about delivering packages of medication, but packages of care.
So in that respect, I probably got a head start over some of the other recruits, fresh out of university and their pre-registration year.
Get out of your comfort zone
I left university with a clear idea in my head that pharmacy was about far more than medicines and diseases.
But I wanted to put those skills to the test as soon as possible. I undertook my pre-reg year in a busy independent pharmacy in north London, rather than in a multiple where – as far as I was concerned – the rules were decided by managers from head office, turning staff into box-ticking, semi-robotic beings.
Independent pharmacy was gritty. I learned far more in that year than I would have done in a multiple because in independent setting you watch how decisions are made, learn how to think on your feet and apply your own common sense. There is no head office to fall back on, you are literally an all-in-one resource.
“Independent pharmacy was gritty. I learned far more in
Get your finances straight
Looking back on my career, I’d say the biggest single issue facing anyone striking out as an independent contractor is finance.
It isn’t something you are taught in the classroom. And in pharmacy it’s a particularly difficult balancing act because this business is not about sell, sell, sell. It’s about putting patients first.
Having said that, a business needs to make a profit so that it can invest in new services and staff training.
That’s something students should be given more guidance on, because it can make the difference between success and failure.
Take your staff’s development seriously
Another responsibility I never quite appreciated at the outset was the personal development of my staff. This is something that’s rarely touched upon during pharmacy studies, but is essential for a business to flourish.
Staff are ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs and work is a highly stressful environment – they need to feel appreciated, motivated and part of the decision-making process.
I try to help them understand the difference they are making to people's lives and the outcomes we are trying to achieve. They need to be nurtured and supported because we never stop learning personally or professionally. If a member of staff is making the same mistakes as they did a year ago, or not coping, that’s not progress.
In my pharmacy, I give my staff lots of responsibility and explain why it’s important that they do their jobs well. We are in a business where making one silly mistake could potentially kill someone.
But good delegation isn’t just about telling staff what to do. You need to empower them to act for themselves.
I learned this quickly when I bought my pharmacy over a decade ago. The buck stops with me: there is no hierarchy here and to a certain extent everybody is a manager. My staff get a share of the profits, so there is a huge incentive for them to have a stake in the success of the business.
Make a plan
With hindsight, I could probably have benefitted from a decent career plan or pathway – and I suspect many more pharmacy graduates could too. In my early days I worked in hospitals, industry and on the local pharmaceutical committee before deciding to set up as an independent contractor. But I had little or no guidance on what path to consider taking.
That’s not to say young pharmacists don’t have the capacity to change the way things are done.
For example, at the age of 27, I stood for and secured election to the council of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) because I could see the future of community pharmacy was about diagnosis and screening. At the time, the society seemed to hold the view that pharmacists should be ‘pseudo’ professionals hanging on to the coat-tails of GPs.
Warning: hard work ahead
Finally, a word of warning. The one thing I did realise early on – but I suspect many starting out in their careers may not – is the amount of sheer hard work that’s needed to run your own pharmacy.
As the boss, you cannot walk away from problems and it’s not uncommon for me to find myself still at the pharmacy at midnight. But, while owning your own business is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have ever done, it is also the most rewarding.