In my view, as a non-pharmacist, pharmacy has always been undervalued within the wider health sector.
Politicians reinforce this with their exclusive reference to the NHS in terms of doctors and nurses, a lazy shorthand for the extensive list of healthcare professionals serving patients and public.
Pharmacy has to work harder to fight its corner and establish itself firmly in the minds of policy-makers and the public as a profession with as much to offer patients as doctors and the nurses.
What good is the doctor’s diagnosis or the nurse’s tender care without the knowledge and expertise of the pharmacist to get the right medicines to cure the ill?
So it continues to amaze and frustrate me that when the broader pharmacy sector, through its representatives, has the chance to identify issues where everyone has a valuable stake and contribution, some decide to go their own way without looking at the big picture and the people affected by it.
Step forward the trailblazer group who decided to participate and, as their name suggests, lead discussions on a pharmacy apprenticeship scheme. Last month, in a hurried and barely detected seven working day consultation by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE), proposals were made to take forward a plan to establish pharmacy apprenticeships.
Had the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) not mustered its resources and rallied its members, the proposal might have slipped through unnoticed.
Instead IFATE received over 6,000 responses to a proposal they undoubtedly thought would get through with barely a whisper. Thousands of PDA members contacted the organisation to express their concerns.
Let’s put aside for one moment whether there is both value and need for a pharmacy apprenticeship. There might be. Other healthcare professions are either exploring or pursuing this route – nursing for example.
But the proposals which appeared, without wider reference to understanding the problem such a proposal is trying to solve, made no attempt to build that case.
On the contrary, the trailblazer group, whose members are unclear, did not set out the case and engage in a profession-wide debate on the issues and why apprenticeships would be the solution.
The first issue that needs to be clarified is who really was involved in the initial discussions and what did they think was going to happen?
It’s not clear from the initial statement from IFATE, as references to consultation with the professional body and regulator have been met with either outright denial in the case of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society or qualified engagement from the General Pharmaceutical Council. Who knows?
Even more concerning is the lack of understanding of where the NHS and pharmacy are heading. In the consultation document it says ‘pharmacists are not required to diagnose and manage medical care.’ Really? Most pharmacists I know are doing that on a daily basis.
The role of community pharmacy cannot and will not be based primarily on a supply model as the NHS seeks to develop much greater use of the resources available to it. You only need to listen to the updates from PSNC as they negotiate a new contract to understand that change is coming and clinical services will be at the core.
Is it really the view of the trailblazer group that pharmacists don’t have a role to diagnose and manage medical care? Is that the vision they have for pharmacists who would qualify though the apprenticeship scheme?
There will always be disagreements between employer organisations and those representing employees. It is hardly surprising that large employers have a different perspective on the role of a pharmacist or how those skills can be utilised to best effect or greatest financial return.
It’s why employer representative bodies like the Company Chemists’ Association and employee organisations like the PDA exist.
But there has to be a coming together on the value of a pharmacist’s skills and the standing of the profession. Failure to do so in the face of so many other threats to the profession is foolhardy. As the saying goes, “united we stand, divided we fall.’
There are so many issues that need to be considered before embarking on a pharmacy apprenticeship, not least understanding the greater clinical role pharmacists will play in future.
Claire Ward is director of public affairs at the Pharmacists’ Defence Association.