Careers in pharmacy

Pharmacy is a dynamic area of healthcare offering many varied and rewarding careers, including working as a pharmacist, pharmacy technician or a medicines counter assistant. Find out what skills you need for each position.

Pharmacists

Pharmacists are experts in medicines, and their use.

They train as scientists and clinicians and have a unique set of skills and knowledge. Using this scientific knowledge, pharmacists advise patients on how to use their medicines safely and effectively, and work alongside other healthcare professionals to recommend the best medicine for particular conditions and diseases.

Pharmacists are the third largest healthcare profession in the UK and they work in many different settings wherever there are medicines such as:

  • community pharmacies
  • hospitals
  • general practice

The role of the pharmacist can include:

  • developing new medicines
  • supplying medicines
  • giving advice about medicines

Increasingly pharmacists are offering other health services, such as vaccination services.

Increasing numbers of pharmacists are also prescribers, and like doctors can prescribe medicines on prescriptions.

They also work within the wider healthcare team to ensure that patients receive the best possible care.

Hospital pharmacists

Hospital pharmacists are a vital part of the healthcare team. Being a hospital pharmacist means you’re part of a team where the focus is firmly on patients.

There is a lot of variety in hospital pharmacy in terms of what you can do and you'll always be working within a team of pharmacy staff which include:

  • pharmacists
  • pharmacy technicians
  • pharmacy assistants

You might get involved in manufacturing, developing, testing, supplying and monitoring the effectiveness of all of the medicines used in the hospital.

You'll also give advice to other healthcare professionals and not just patients, you may evaluate medicines and develop protocols.

You may then specialise later in your career in conditions such as mental health, cancer (oncology) and the heart (cardiology); and specialist areas of practice, such as paediatrics (child health), and the care of older people.

Pharmacists also work in urgent and emergency medicine departments, quality assurance, clinical trials, and in medicines information departments.

You'll have opportunities to progress into management or teaching roles within the hospital and work closer with the wider healthcare team.

Community pharmacists

Community pharmacists work at the front line of healthcare in cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland.

They work from their own pharmacies or out of local healthcare centres and doctor’s surgeries.

As a community pharmacist your job is all about helping patients and the public, assessing their conditions and making decisions about which medicines they should take.

You’ll be involved in dispensing medicines safely and efficiently and offering your patients advice and practical help on keeping healthy. It's a very responsible job and community pharmacists tend to be highly respected members of their communities.

Community pharmacists are also taking on more of the roles that have traditionally been undertaken by doctors, such as conducting medication reviews for people with long term conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and delivering flu vaccinations. They also help people give up smoking, alter their diets to make them healthier and advise on sexual health matters.

Some community pharmacists own their own businesses and enjoy the challenges of management and having responsibility for staff, stock and premises that this brings.

Others work for large pharmacy chains and have the opportunity to move around or progress onto more senior roles within an established company structure.

General practice pharmacists

In recent years an emerging model of care delivery has developed which involves using the skills of pharmacists as part of the wider healthcare team within GP practices.

Pharmacists working as part of the team in general practice can make a huge difference to both patients and clinical colleagues.

You'll consult with and treat patients directly, working closely with GPs to resolve medicines issues, and enabling them to focus their skills where they are most needed, for example on diagnosing and treating patients. You will therefore usually be an independent prescriber.

You will review patients’ medicines and provide advice on how best to take them. As part of the multidisciplinary team, pharmacists are able to advise other professionals about medicines, resolve problems with prescriptions and reduce prescribing errors.

Skills needed to be a pharmacist

Pharmacists need excellent communication skills to translate technical medical information to patients, and because they often work in busy environments must be:

  • organised
  • logical
  • able to manage multiple tasks and remain calm under pressure

They have a good eye for detail and are thorough and accurate in what they do.

Pharmacists work in teams and are often involved in education and training others, so good people skills are essential, too.

Training programmes for pharmacy

To qualify as a pharmacist you must take a four-year Master of Pharmacy (MPharm) degree course followed by successful completion of a year of pre-registration training within a pharmacy workplace (for which you get paid).

At the end of pre-registration training, you must pass the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI) registration assessment after which you will be able to register and practise as a pharmacist.

The following undergraduate, full-time, four-year programmes are offered in Northern Ireland:

Career pathway for pharmacists

Pharmacists are valued health professionals, with skills that are in demand worldwide.

After completing five years of study and training you’ll find doors open to you in so many different areas, offering a career with security, flexibility, variety, opportunity, satisfaction and excellent rewards.

As a pharmacist your role will be constantly evolving, as new roles emerge all the time across healthcare. Many of the experiences and skills you’ll develop in practice can be transferred to other pharmacy environments and roles.

There are many career options available to graduates. The majority take up places in community pharmacies and some will eventually own their own business. Others will be employed as pharmacists within the health service working in hospitals, with GPs or for healthcare organisations.

Pharmacists also work in other roles with less direct contact with patients, for example in:

  • universities
  • regulation
  • government organisations
  • research
  • publishing
  • the pharmaceutical industry

Pharmacy technician

Pharmacy technicians are highly skilled and essential members of the pharmacy team and work under the supervision of a pharmacist. They're involved in the preparation, dispensing and supply of medicines and products to patients.

Many pharmacy technicians in all pharmacy settings are extending their roles to work with pharmacists and other healthcare staff in helping patients to manage their medicines.

These specialist roles involve:

  • checking and recording the medication that patients should be taking
  • ensuring sufficient supplies
  • helping patients to understand how to use their medicines safely on the hospital wards, and when they return home

Pharmacy Technicians can also take additional training and assessment to allow them to perform the final accuracy check of prescriptions before being issued to the patient.

In hospital and industry pharmacy technicians manage the technical aspects of dispensing services and manufacturing medicines.

Hospital pharmacy technician

Hospital pharmacy technicians are involved in the procurement, manufacture, dispensing and safe administration of medicines. Technicians can also routinely perform the final accuracy check on dispensed medicines, immediately before it is released to the patient.

Pharmacy technicians are trained to make medicinal products. These can include creams, ointments and mixtures and those medicines which need to be tailor made for specific patients - for example, injections used to treat cancer.

Community pharmacy technician

Community pharmacy technicians work under the supervision of registered pharmacists in retail pharmacies. They label and dispense prescribed medicines. They also provide information and advice to patients about how to use their medication.

With the guidance of the pharmacist, they are also trained to advise members of the public about over the counter medicines and management of minor ailments.

Activities can include:

  • making simple dilutions
  • making up ointments and mixtures
  • assisting with services to nursing homes and the supply of oxygen
  • helping the pharmacist in a range of other duties such as stock checking and ordering
  • keeping individual records of patients prescriptions

Skills and training needed to be a pharmacy technician

Pharmacy technicians should have excellent communication skills to translate important medical information to patients, and because they often work in busy environments must be:

  • organised
  • logical
  • able to manage multiple tasks and remain calm under pressure
  • able to work well as part of the wider pharmacy team

They have a good eye for detail and are thorough and accurate in what they do.

To become a pharmacy technician you'll need to find employment as a Student Pharmacy Technician.

There are no minimum requirements to be a pharmacy technician, although you will usually be expected to have four GCSEs at Grace C or above, or the equivalent, including English, Science and Maths.

Training to become a pharmacy technician takes two years and combines practical work with study as either a distance learning or college-based course leading to an NVQ level 3 in pharmacy services.

The training consists of two-year consecutive work-based experience under the direction of a pharmacist or pharmacy technicians for not less than 14 hours a week.

The knowledge course will either be studied, as day-release or block release at a local college, or by distance learning depending on the training provider.

You'll study a variety of topics such as:

  • human physiology
  • disease management
  • actions and uses of medicines
  • pharmacy manufacturing
  • pharmacy law

Career pathway for pharmacy technicians

In the hospital service, there are several grades for qualified pharmacy technicians. Senior technicians can specialise in a range of pharmaceutical services while a chief technician is often responsible for managing a section of the pharmacy department.

The opportunities for specialisation and increased responsibility extend with experience. There are a number of management, administration and specialist roles undertaken by pharmacy technicians.

Professional recognition for pharmacy technicians

Further information about the role of pharmacy technicians is available from the Association of Pharmacy Technicians, who are the professional leadership body for pharmacy technicians in the UK.

Pharmacy/ dispensing assistant

Pharmacy/ dispensing assistants work under the supervision of pharmacists. They do general duties in community pharmacies.

These duties include:

  • sale of over the counter medicines
  • giving information to customers on symptoms and products
  • prescription receipt and collection
  • the assembly of prescribed items (including the generation of labels)
  • ordering, receiving and storing pharmaceutical stock
  • preparation for the manufacture of pharmaceutical products (including aseptic products)
  • manufacture and assembly of medicinal products (including aseptic products)

Skills and training needed to be a dispensing assistant

You should have:

  • good teamwork skills
  • an ability to communicate well
  • good organisations skills

Trainees are mostly given on-the-job training. However, you can  show ability in this area by completing NVQ level 2 in Pharmacy Services.

There are no formal entry requirements.

Career pathway for pharmacy/ dispensing assistant

For those who have gained experience and wish to take on additional responsibility, opportunities to train as a pharmacy technician may be available.

Medicines counter assistant

Medicine counter assistants should be able to communicate well as the role includes lots of contact with the public. You should also be able to work well as part of a team.

Training

Trainees are mostly given on-the-job training and many of the larger pharmaceutical companies provide accredited in-house training courses. Details of other accredited courses are available from the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland.

There are no formal education requirements.

Career pathway for medicines counter assistants

For those who have gained experience and wish to take on additional responsibility, opportunities to train as a pharmacy technician or a dispensing/ pharmacy assistant may be available.

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