Uncovered: The life of a Pharmacy Contractor

Happy Fathers Day! This post is going to be a Fathers Day special dedicated to all the Dad’s out there. A big thank you for everything that you do! Today we’re featuring a father who works as a Pharmacy Contractor. So if you want to know more about what this role involves keep reading.

Welcome to the blog! Tell us a little bit about yourself with regards to what you do in your spare time and how long you’ve been qualified for?

I registered as a pharmacist in 1978 and became a Contractor December 1st 1981 in partnership with two others making the break from being employees. In my spare time I have two daughters (grown up) who I enjoy spending time with. My youngest works with me and the other lives in Cardiff so actually we have very little decent family time together.

I play guitar and have played a variety of styles with a large diverse group of people.. Music is completely different to pharmacy and you judge your peers by different criteria but the overwhelming factor would be how we get along together. Similar to any decent team.

What inspired you to enter the world of pharmacy?

When I was a teenager, I was good at chemistry and looked for a course with a career at the end of it. I think the diversity on offer was attractive, Hospital, Industry (a massive sector where you were judged on ability, not necessarily paper qualifications) and of course “Retail” as it was known back then. As you work in the profession you see new opportunities and of course the Ridge reforms are opening up new opportunities for pharmacists as we speak. I’m not convinced those opportunities are aimed at independent contractors such as myself but time will tell.

Tell us about what motivated you to become a pharmacy contractor and how you went about becoming one?

I think I’m probably unemployable; so employment was a struggle! I have strong opinions and didn’t agree with the focus of businesses I’d worked in at the time. I worked for Boots for 56 weeks (52 pre-reg and 4 my notice) and the big corporate world, which had big attractions to a family man (which I wasn’t); didn’t appeal to me in any shape or form.

An opportunity to buy a pharmacy came up and myself and two others went for it. We put up everything we had (which in my case was negligible but it was still everything!) and went for it. Almost immediately the DOH (Department of Health) sought to claw back profit we couldn’t have made (we weren’t in business at the time) and PSNC (Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee) told us we had to get on with it. A group of new contractors got together, raised some money, and succeeded in getting an injunction preventing DOH taking from us. The experience taught me you cannot rely on anyone ever. It’s down to you. You will have to fight and you must never back down from it. It’s not just your family but the families and futures of those who have elected to join your organisation, and, of course, the patients you serve.

Since then I met a fellow pharmacist. We have a business each but founded a joint business with 7 pharmacies. We are proud of our achievement and of the people in the organisation we have created.

What roles and responsibilities does your job entail?

Everything. Arguing with the window cleaner to negotiating a shared care agreement with a GP practice. Everything said in the pharmacy is said by me: everything bought is my responsibility, everyone who works for me eats before I do, takes their families on holiday before I do. I convince commissioners we can perform a role then train the staff to do it. I sometimes have to convince the staff more than commissioners!

What are the highlights about working in this role and why?

I think every pharmacist will rightly point out examples of where they’ve helped patients, families etc. They frequently have saved lives and have certainly made significant interventions. There are professional rewards like being recognised by peers, figures in the local community, GP’s hospital colleagues and they are wonderful. We plough a lonely furrow due to our working hours and operate without a safety net (ask any GP how much they rely on a pharmacist picking up an error? What do we have? and still getting it wrong carries the threat of a jail sentence) so getting recognition is great. 

However, the contribution I have got most satisfaction from has been developing staff. In some cases from school holiday jobs in to superintendent positions at other companies. We have a lady who started as a delivery driver. She became an ACT (Accuracy Checking Technician) over time and we then invested in a general management degree and  now she is the general manager of my co-owned company. We fight (as passionate and principled people always will) but always reach a satisfactory resolution. Seeing her growing confidence and authority was a rich reward. We also have very bright people who started as school leavers in positions of significant responsibility who, because their teachers never encouraged them, have exceeded their expectations. Watching and nurturing this is probably the most rewarding part of the job; for me anyway.

I have also accumulated some prestigious awards along the way which is always good to show the young pharmacists who want to ship me out to grass…

Is there anything you don’t like about the job and why?

The amount of paperwork has become stultifying. It takes me away from patients and is a source of infuriating frustration. I won’t rant as every contractor feels the same. GP’s wouldn’t put up with it. They would ensure that they could employ sufficient management resource to delegate it to. They wouldn’t do it unless they had the resource.

What impact do you think your job has on the world of pharmacy?

Difficult question. Me personally? For all my career I believed that community pharmacy could solve most of the primary care access problems. We are getting mixed messages about whether that is in the thinking of NHS England. They want to use us more for urgent care but they want to close 2000 of us…

How have the recent cuts in pharmacy funding affected you?

It’s been appalling! We have had to cut staff which has meant an increase in absenteeism and work based stress. We were always generous employers and paid decent salaries for good work. The funding cuts along with increased minimum wage and employers pension contributions have made it very hard to reward our staff appropriately. We sent people on the clinical leadership courses and they all secured hospital jobs as a consequence of making new contacts and our inability to meet their new expectations. It’s great skilling people up but actually, where is community pharmacy in the zone of employers who will be delivering these roles? It’s been left to the whims of the new Primary Care Networks. Contractors are firefighting these days and don’t have the time they once had to innovate. We improve staff skills for new roles but we need a fighting chance of being able to deliver those new roles.

Give us an idea on something that you think would revolutionise pharmacy or an idea that currently is and why you think it’s amazing?

We aren’t slow in embracing the dubious benefits of technology. However, we need to increase opportunities for technicians. I was very happy to let them manage the dispensing process and sell “P” medicines . The more training they get (like everyone) the more they realise their limitations and boundaries, the more they release pharmacists to do the more interesting and satisfying clinically focussed roles. It also puts a competitive pressure on a pharmacist when they work with a truly amazing technician. I know this because I work with so many. I am well aware that this isn’t a popular view…….

Also a commitment by NHS England to use our skills in our communities would give a lot of confidence for contractors to invest. We geared up for the care homes role. Care homes we didn’t supply were very keen. But when the service was launched the scope was pitiful and it certainly wasn’t open to community pharmacies to get involved. Sunderland and South Tyneside combined (over 400,000 patients) got the services of a pharmacist for it’s elderly residents of care homes for 12 hours a week in total – a scandal!

Overall, do you enjoy your job role and would you recommend others to undertake this role?

I used to, but currently it’s pretty miserable. I have negligible business debts but really feel for young contractors with large debts (as I once did) at a time of unprecedented change when NHS England seems determined to finish us off.

What advice would you give to anyone out there who is thinking of becoming a pharmacy contractor?

I wouldn’t put anyone off the autonomy I have enjoyed since working for myself. However, there are opportunities to be commissioned to run services. For 8 years, I was part of a social enterprise that provided drug treatment services. My partners were 2 GP’s and a counsellor. We employed doctors, nurses, pharmacists, key workers etc and the company is still in existence supporting long term condition patients. You can be autonomous, deliver services, motivate a team and make a living doing good things for patients without the expense and current hassle of owning a pharmacy. 

However, if you enjoy community pharmacy, want to to do it your way and have the cojones to have a go whilst being cognisant of the huge challenges (in my opinion vaccination clinics are not going to make a difference) then I am the last person to try to dissuade you. 

Any other comments?

Plough your own furrow and when the criticism is at it’s highest you are closest to succeeding.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to like, comment and share this post! If you would like to get involved please don’t hesitate to contact me on: thepintsizedpharmacist@gmail.com

Until next time,

The Pintsized Pharmacist

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