If you think a pharmacist still wears a white coat and just dispenses pills, think again. Changes to medicine in the past decade have seen the profession move to the heart of the health agenda, and pharmacists are in demand across all areas of public health – patient care, product development, academic research or specialist areas such as veterinary medicine.

For many applicants to the profession, the main attraction is frontline community or retail pharmacy, where around 80 per cent of turnover may be NHS-related, but there is an opportunity to offer private services, too.

The chance to run your own business may appeal to budding entrepreneurs, and to those who want contact with customers.

Retail pharmacists are increasingly becoming specialists – whether in anti-coagulant services, cardiovascular or sexual health, or even companion animal pharmacy.

The variety of the work is a major attraction for new recruits, according to Heidi Wright, head of practice at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), the professional and regulatory body for pharmacists.

"Aside from selling toiletries and everyday headache pills, today's community pharmacist can also expect to dispense complex pharmacy products to anyone from drug users or chronic smokers to people with raised cholesterol or asthma," she says.

"With most medicines being manufactured and presented in packets, the role of a community pharmacist in making up prescriptions is being superseded by over-the-counter advice on everything from how your medicine may interact with other prescriptions to diagnosing and treating minor ailments such as sore throats."

Now that around 75 per cent of high street pharmacies having consultation rooms, patients wishing to discuss a delicate problem in private need no longer wait to schedule an appointment with their GP.

Before a new entrant can choose a frontline role in retail pharmacy, however, there are three significant hurdles to overcome. The first is the four-year Master of Pharmacy degree – obligatory in this graduate-only profession – which usually requires three good science A-levels, particularly chemistry.

The second stage is a year of paid pre-registration training, typically at a retail or hospital pharmacy, and the third is the RPSGB registration exam, after which it is possible to practise.

Although many in the profession will, at this stage, choose one key area of pharmacy, others will have a portfolio career, which allows them to move around in various settings.

James Wood, 26, says that he always knew he wanted to be a pharmacist. Now a director at the Sheffield-based Wicker Pharmacy and Mobility Shop, he has a Masters in pharmacy from Aston University.

He likes the fact that pharmacy technicians now have more of a role in the supply of medicines, freeing up pharmacists to concentrate more on advice. "I never wanted to be doctor – I always thought I would dislike the invasive procedures, such as cutting and stitching, that a GP carries out – but my present level of contact with patients is just about right," he says.

Like many in the industry, Wood loves the variety and the freedom to work outside the pharmacy as well as within it. "If I'm in the pharmacy, I'll be covering a range of issues such as sexual health, needle exchange or the treatment of minor conditions," he says. "But I also get to visit patients' homes and discuss how they are finding their medication and whether there are any problems."

He shares the Government's desire that more people should be able to access up-to-date advice and medication via their high street pharmacist. "Here in Sheffield, it is noticeable that many men who are reluctant to see their GP are quite happy to come in and discuss sometimes quite personal issues," he says. "I believe we capture a different audience by our off-the-street, no-appointment-needed approach."

In the future, pharmacies will offer weight management advice. Wood's pharmacy already provides accurate body measurement and dietary assistance, and he thinks that pharmacies may prescribe medication as a way of tackling the growing obesity crisis.

"Above all, I hope that in my career, I'll see more integration with other healthcare professionals so that pharmacy becomes a truly clinical profession," he says. "We have a big public health role to play and I can only see this becoming more important as time goes on."