Hemant Patel: The pharmacist's role is expanding as never before

If you are looking for a challenge in the healthcare arena that is fast- evolving and patient-focused, then pharmacy could be the choice for you. Many pharmacists now operate at the frontline of the NHS and today, the role of the pharmacist is expanding as never before. You can choose to work in a variety of areas including community pharmacy, hospital, primary care, the pharmaceutical industry, academia, research or the armed forces. Opportunities are also developing in specialist areas such as veterinary pharmacy.

In whatever field they operate, pharmacists work to improve health, either by researching new medicines, working as part of a team with doctors and nurses in hospitals or giving advice directly to patients. They also play a major part at a senior level within the NHS framework, managing medicines and making the best use of resources allocated for medicines.

Pharmacists are also involved in the regulation of medicines, ensuring that they are safe and effective. And, of course, pharmacists are teaching in our universities to help develop the pharmacists of tomorrow.

If you're interested in working abroad, then your skills as a pharmacist could be in demand worldwide and opportunities within international pharmaceutical companies are growing all the time as new markets emerge.

The responsibilities that pharmacists have are increasing all the time and some are already able to prescribe medicines for patients. By working closely with a doctor, they can adjust a patient's medication in accordance with an agreed protocol.

This is all part of the Government's stated aim of improving public access to healthcare, to help people stay well and out of hospital and patients to better treat their own conditions at home. Pharmacists have long shown that they have the skills and expertise to make a significant contribution to NHS services, improve public health and provide choice. Other initiatives such as community-based minor ailment schemes and the introduction of Electronic Transfer of Prescriptions (ETP) will place pharmacists at the cutting edge.

Pharmacists also help people to lead healthier lifestyles. For example, we have a significant role in helping people stop smoking and offering valuable expert advice on areas such as sexual health.

To qualify as a pharmacist, students must take a four-year Masters of pharmacy degree course followed by a year of pre-registration training within a pharmacy workplace (for which you get paid). Finally, you must pass the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain's (RPSGB) registration exam, after which you will be able to practise as a pharmacist. The RPSGB is the regulatory and professional body for pharmacists, working to protect the public and also develop the pharmacy profession. In Northern Ireland you must be registered with the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Pharmacists who are registered with either PSNI or RPSGB are eligible for registration with the other organisation.

Although most courses are geared to those with A-levels in chemistry and two other subjects from biology, mathematics or physics, students may also be considered with chemistry or biology (and one other subject). You also need literacy and numeracy skills with minimum GCSE in maths and English language at grade C or above. In Scotland, students require Highers in the sciences. Approximately one-third of students admitted to schools of pharmacy have other qualifications. These include the Irish School Leaving Certificate, National or Higher National Certificate or Diplomas, international baccalaureate or Access qualifications. You should check the precise entry requirements of your chosen school. For more information and links to the different schools log onto: www.pharmacycareers.org.uk.

And don't forget, life as a pharmacy student is great fun. Aside from university life, the RPSGB has its own British Pharmaceutical Students' Association (see: www.bpsa.com) which is the national body representing pharmacy students and pre-registration trainees. Log onto their website and see the variety of social and study-related events they organise and the help and advice they can offer.

Every year the RPSGB holds the British Pharmaceutical Conference (BPC) which is recognised as the leading pharmacy science and practice event in the country. This year's event takes place at the Manchester International Convention Centre, from 4-6 September. Visit www.bpc2006.org for more information.

On behalf of the profession, I look forward to welcoming you to a career in pharmacy.

Hemant Patel is President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

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