Uncovered: The life of a pharmacy researcher & writer

Remember the Eczema & Me post a few weeks back? (Go through the archives and have a read if not) That inspired me to get a pharmacist’s viewpoint on dermatology in general, and luckily enough I managed to get someone who was willing to feature. I’m looking to explore dermatology further so keep your eyes peeled for more posts but in the mean time – enjoy reading this. 

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 have been qualified as a pharmacist for?

I’m very keen on keeping fit so workout every day. It’s a mixture of strength training and aerobic work, mainly high intensity interval training and I also play squash once a week. I play acoustic guitar which I have done since the age of 16 and mainly play instrumental pieces – though I do try and sing – but no-one has said that I’m any good – or bad but hey. I’ve two children; one is just about to graduate and the other finished at university last year and currently works in China. I qualified as a pharmacist in 1988, so I suppose you can say I have been around a long time.

Initially, what made you enter the world of pharmacy?

I actually applied to do pharmacology but didn’t get the correct grades and pharmacy was actually my second choice! Reading the prospectus, it seemed that the course covered everything about the use of drugs, biochemistry etc and I’d read an Isaac Asimov book on biochemistry at the age of 11 and thought that this was an interesting topic so wanted to pursue something related to it. The outline for pharmacy or pharmacology seemed to tick most of my boxes. 

My pharmacy degree did involve a lot of manufacturing dispensed preparations e.g. making creams and we also studied pharmacognosy which was all about plants and to my mind, rather dull. I enjoyed chemistry and decided after graduating to do a PhD in pharmaceutical analytical chemistry which I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt a great deal of new topics such as statistical analysis, chromatography and spectroscopy. I think at this stage I was wanting to get into research. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a job and so meandered into locum work before taking a permanent position in community pharmacy.  

I worked for an independent and with a few colleagues set up a company that provided needle & syringe exchange services which was funded by the local health authority. My role was to produce newsletters for substance misuser but I also wrote articles for the pharmacists involved in providing the service so that they were more aware of substance misuse issues. This led to my involvement with a CPPE package on substance misuse, for which I wrote several of the chapters. I also wrote several CPD articles on drug misuse for the Chemist + Druggist magazine back in the 1990’s and published an article on research I conducted with service users exploring their knowledge and understanding of harm minimisation practices.

Over the years I’ve worked in general practice – back in the late 1990’s when it was rather novel. I later got a job in prison and it was here that I developed an interest in dermatology. The prison doctor was seeing and prescribing for patients with mild acne, dandruff, eczema etc. I thought that this was not making best use of their time and after meeting up with a local dermatologist, he invited me to sit in on his GP referral clinics for a few months. I took this new found knowledge back to the prison and started to run dermatology clinics for prisoners with skin problems. This work led to me winning a pharmaceutical care award in 2003. I trained as an independent prescriber but as time progressed, I wanted to pursue a career researching and writing about dermatology rather than practicing it. I wanted to promote a better understanding of dermatology among pharmacists – which is still my intention (and for a while move back into community pharmacy); though I’ve now mostly given this up and spend my time writing and researching.

Tell us about your job title, and how you came about acquiring the role and what motivated you to do so?

I received my first research grant from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society back in 2009 and received an email from some researchers working at a university in Scotland who had seen the work I published. We have collaborated over the years on different projects (and continue to do so) but I’m now also working with an NHS research organisation nearer to home. Since my PhD I’ve wanted to work as a researcher, but analytical chemistry wasn’t for me so I had to find an alternative avenue for research. I always thought that there must have been something more to having a pharmacy degree than working in community and my experience of general practice and prisons taught me that this was indeed other opportunities. However, my interest has always been in research and this is what motivates me to do my current role. As a writer, I try and convey some of my passion for dermatology with other pharmacist colleagues though I do write a lot of book reviews for the Pharmaceutical Journal and blog pieces for a pharmacy magazine. I guess that you could call me an independent researcher/writer at the moment.

Did you need any prior experience in order to acquire your job role, or were the skills that you had picked up studying the pharmacy degree sufficient?

I think that my PhD has helped a lot because research trains you to focus your mind on a problem and to view it from all possible angles. I don’t think there was really much in my undergraduate course that really helped me. The necessary knowledge and skills have come post-qualification. However, I would advise anyone who has an interest in research to undertake a higher degree first – that definitely helps.

What roles and responsibilities does your job entail?

I’m self-employed and receive payment for on-going research studies as well as writing educational articles.  I’m currently working on 3 projects as well as writing-up two others. In addition, I write educational articles for the Pharmacy Press and have a regular column for a dermatology nursing journal which requires me to write 6 articles a year. I’m always looking for new grants and meeting with people who can potentially fund my ideas for research.  On a daily basis, I’m pretty disciplined and often start work around 7.30 and will work until around 4 pm but will fit in another hour early evening. I guess that as I’ve currently got a lot of stuff going on, it requires a lot of commitment. Once a year I teach dermatology to second and third year undergraduates as well as third year clinical science students and I set and mark an examination question for them. I write commissioned pieces of work as well. I’ve recently done two training modules for a major pharmacy chain and have written a large dermatology training module for a university.

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

I work from home – which is both a blessing and a curse in equal measures but does require a lot of self-discipline. Yes, I don’t have to battle with the traffic and the such-like but there are always plenty of other things to do at home  – most of which don’t include work! I live in a small village on the east coast which is very scenic and I enjoy walking my dogs every morning – well, not so much when the beast from the east rears its ugly head. I rarely work in pharmacies now and don’t really miss it. I think there is a lot of pressure in community pharmacy and my life has a lot less stress now but I still plan my days and do have deadlines to meet for some of the articles I write. I think having both flexibility and freedom are very important attributes for a happy job. I’ve done this full-time for nearly two years now and can honestly say that it is a satisfying way of life. My daughter recently commented on how laid-back I seemed!

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

Every job has its downsides and mine is no different. Though the research grants pay me a fixed salary, there is always the worry about whether I can secure another grant to keep me going. But I take the view that “success breeds success” and once you come to accept this, it gives you more confidence. I often reach out to people and try and sell myself and what I can do for them. It has worked – not always – but I’ve come to realise that there is truth in the old adage “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. I’ve recently diversified and am currently working on two projects related to hormone replacement therapy which may lead to other sources of funding. Flexibility is therefore very important in being able to secure funding. There are a few things that I actually dislike about my role apart from being sat down a lot of the time and some days I don’t speak to people and can find myself talking with the dogs  – though the conversation is far too one-sided for my liking!

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

I guess this is a difficult question to answer. I do get asked to write articles and get invited to speak at meetings so I suppose that I have become known in the pharmacy world and that must account for something. 

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?

My passion is to raise the profile of dermatological conditions among pharmacists. I think that there is a lot that pharmacists can do. I did a study in community pharmacy with psoriasis patients and this demonstrated that educational input from pharmacists to patients made a big impact on quality of life and disease severity. It was easy enough to do (for the pharmacists) and I think they learned a lot about the condition and how it impacted on patients. Rather than focusing in on the big areas such as hypertension, diabetes etc, there are plenty of patients out there with skin problems who get little help and support but are really appreciative when it is given. I’d therefore like to see a dermatology enhanced service from pharmacies because those with a skin disease often end up seeing a specialist simply because they were not given adequate advice/support in primary care. When I was first working in pharmacies, I was expected to show patients who to use their inhalers. Now that is done by the asthma nurse at the practice but how many of these nurses will demonstrate how to apply a cream or use a topical agent? Very few I suspected and this is a gap that pharmacists can and should easily fill. I’m working towards getting funding to explore how pharmacists can help in this area and the outcomes for patients.

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

Very much so; for me it demonstrates that there is more to being a pharmacist than simply dispensing medicines. Yes, pharmacists have other advisory roles but the majority of money still comes from dispensing for which I think they are vastly over-qualified. I also enjoy pitching an idea for an article to magazine editors and they often like the idea and so I get commissioned to do the work. I think it is important to go out there and sell yourself. I write blog pieces for a pharmacy magazine and now don’t bother to ask the editor whether they’d like me to blog about a particular topic. I just send in something I’ve decided to write about and the article soon appears on their website – so I guess they must like it!

I’d certainly recommend this type of work to other pharmacists but you need to be confident in your abilities and this will come with experience. I’m fortunate in that my outgoing are small so I don’t actually need a large amount of money to keep me going. I think it would be a great risk for someone to embark on this type of work with a mortgage and small children. Fortunately, all that is behind me!

What advice would you give to anyone what wants to undertake your current role?

I read the Chemist + Druggist on-line and sense a good deal of frustration among many community pharmacy colleagues who yearn for a change of career. Do an MSc or PhD so that you gain insight into the research process. If you don’t get a grant, don’t give up – I’ve had plenty of rejections in my time – you just have to keep trying. Offer to write for magazines. I first approached the Chemist + Druggist over 25 years ago with the idea for an article on what I was doing at the time and they liked it. 

Any other comments?

If you fancy giving it a go – do it. You’ve nothing to lose and there is always a pharmacy wanting locums if it doesn’t work out.

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading and until next time…

The Pintsized Pharmacist

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