Almost every one of us will have interacted with a pharmacist at some point in our lives. Pharmacists are recognised as medication specialists and are responsible for dispensing drugs in the correct preparation and dosages in accordance with a valid prescription. There is, however, much more to pharmacy practice and the role of the pharmacist. They are considered integral members of care teams in the hospital setting and among the most accessible healthcare professionals in the community setting.
What do pharmacists do?
Pharmacists play a critical role in educating people on how to take their prescribed medication safely and effectively, and of the potential side-effects of medicines. Their remit includes not only prescription-only medicines, but also over-the-counter medicines. They are experts on medications that are taken orally as well as those applied topically (e.g., creams, ointments, and patches), and taken via other routes.
Some pharmacists, particularly those working in hospitals, may provide specialised services in some settings—for example, in oncology, nuclear pharmacy, pain management, nephrology (kidney health), cardiology, rural and remote practice, mental health, psychiatry, women’s and neonatal health, and others.
Hospital pharmacists play an important role in purchasing, storing, monitoring, and dispensing medicines across the hospital, often with support from pharmacy assistants or pharmacy technicians.
Pharmacists who work in both hospital and community settings provide a range of services, some of which include:
- Providing education about the dosage, safe and effective administration, and potential side effects of medicines
- Conducting medicine reviews
- Administering vaccinations
- Providing smoking cessation support and advice
- Providing healthy lifestyle advice and support for weight loss
- Functioning as a resource for other healthcare professionals, patients and the community on matters related to health, wellbeing, and medicines.
Some elements of the pharmacist’s role are more prominent in the community setting, including:
- Driving or participating in health promotion initiatives
- Maintaining good relationships with primary care professionals (e.g., GPs and practice nurses)
- Screening for common health conditions (e.g., high blood pressure)
- Supporting the management and monitoring of chronic health conditions (e.g., high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes)
- Providing advice on contraception and sexual health.
Some community pharmacists complete additional training so they can provide opioid replacement therapy for people who need support to withdraw from opioid drugs.
Pharmacists are key resource people for doctors, other healthcare professionals, and consumers alike, so it is important that they stay up to date on the latest research and drug developments.
Some community pharmacists complete additional training so they can provide opioid replacement therapy for people who need support to withdraw from opioid drugs. Some community pharmacists can also prescribe antibiotics under certain circumstances in countries including Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and in many states in the USA. Australian pharmacists are still working toward securing prescribing rights.
Where do pharmacists work?
This profession works in almost every single country and primarily work in either the hospital or community setting. In the community, they typically work in retail settings, but can also provide outreach services to remote or vulnerable communities. They can also work in prisons, primary care organisations (e.g., GP clinics), aged care facilities, or in the field of research and drug development. In the USA, some pharmacists practice in grocery stores.
Important character traits for pharmacists
Pharmacy is a dynamic and expanding field so pharmacists must be forwarding thinking. A good pharmacist will be patient-centred and consider the range of individual factors that will influence safe medicine use.
Effective communication and education are central to the role of pharmacists. Therefore, patience and the ability to engage in clear communication using multiple methods and tools with people who have varying levels of health literacy, are important qualities.
Pharmacists must have excellent attention to detail and be able to read a range of documents and prescriptions thoroughly and scrupulously.
Pharmacists working in the community setting must be perceptive and able to identify risk factors and conditions that require the attention of a medical doctor. It goes without saying that they need to have a broad knowledge of medicines, medical conditions, and treatment guidelines.
Pharmacy professional education and regulatory frameworks
In Australia, aspiring pharmacists complete a Bachelor of Pharmacy followed by a supervised internship (comprising 1,824 hours of supervised practice).
A bachelor-level qualification is also required to become a pharmacist in Canada, though some will complete a doctorate level qualification.
In the UK, pharmacists attain a Master of Pharmacy degree before embarking on a one-year paid internship.
In South Africa, pharmacists complete a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy which typically takes four years, followed by one year of practice-based training.
In the USA pharmacy students undertake a Doctor of Pharmacy qualification, before undertaking a residency program.
Pharmacists are nationally regulated in Australia by the Health Practitioners Regulation Agency, in South Africa by the South African Pharmacy Council, and in the UK by the General Pharmaceutical Council. In New Zealand, pharmacists are regulated nationally via the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand. In the USA and Canada, pharmacists are regulated via state-based authorities.
Pharmacy workforce considerations
It is an exciting time for pharmacy with its scope of practice edging out to support the ever-strained GP sector.
During the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists were called on across some countries, including the USA, to conduct COVID-19 testing. In many countries, including Australia, the UK, and the USA, pharmacists were able to administer COVID-19 vaccines. In the UK, this was facilitated by a change to the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. New Zealand went a step further, allowing pharmacists to dispense COVID-19 antivirals without a doctor’s prescription.
Similarly, in 2022, pharmacists in the USA were authorised to prescribe the antiviral medicine, Paxlovid, to promote timely access for people with COVID-19.
Although pharmacists are among the most accessible health professionals and are in frequent contact with healthcare consumers, their potential to contribute to the care of people, particularly in the community setting, is unrealised. Pharmacists are well-placed to provide additional client-centred and community-based care and support for people with chronic and complex health conditions (e.g., obesity, diabetes, and drug addiction). However, funding models must be sufficiently flexible and recognise the capacity and capability of pharmacists to provide enhanced care and services.
Pharmacists are also ideally placed to prescribe medications for particular health conditions including uncomplicated urinary tract infections and exacerbations of chronic airways disease. In Canada, for example, these practices have been shown to reduce unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics, which is a key factor in reducing antimicrobial resistance. There is clearly great potential for pharmacists to improve appropriate and timely access to medications for a range of acute and chronic conditions for people living in the community.
Further information about the pharmacy profession
- Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
- National Pharmacy Association – UK
- American Pharmacists Association
- Canadian Pharmacists Association
- Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand
- Pharmacy Council New Zealand
- Israel Pharmacists Association
- South African Pharmacy Council
If you have questions about the pharmacy profession, or if you wish to share your experiences as a pharmacist, please leave a comment below.
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