We’re all waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to deal with coronavirus. Until they develop treatments and a vaccine, people will keep getting sick and dying, and it’s unlikely that the world can return to any semblance of normality.
But what would a career in pharmaceuticals look like? We spoke to Dr Michelle Flood, a lecturer in pharmacy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
“I chose pharmacy because I liked chemistry, maths and people so it seemed a good fit for that balance of interests,” says Flood.
When she qualified, she initially worked as a community pharmacist before doing her PhD and becoming a full-time lecturer.
“People underestimate the number of roles that pharmacists have,” she says. “We’re all familiar with the community pharmacist, where you can get advice about ailments and medicines, prescriptions filled, emergency contraception and vaccinations. Pharmacists also work with GPs and other healthcare professionals to make sure medicines are safe and to get the dosage right.
“We work in hospitals as part of complex care teams including nurses, doctors and physiotherapists. Pharmacists may specialise in a particular area including oncology (cancer treatment), critical care, clinical trials and paediatrics. We have a key role in providing information and the safe and rational use of medicine, because medicines can cause harm if not used with the right safety precautions.
“Our next most common role is in the pharmaceutical industry (including pharmaceutical firms), where we take part in research and development, clinical trials, quality assurance, regulatory and medical affairs.
"There are also pharmacists in regulatory and policy roles, including the Health Products Regulatory Authority (which regulates and clears medicines for use), the HSE and the Health Information and Quality Authority (an agency that works to improve health and social care services), in the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. There are pharmacists working in the big audit firms as well as in start-up enterprises and technology and innovation roles, while another good chunk – like me – go into academia and research."
Flood says they encourage students to explore the full range of careers and to draw on all the skills a pharmacy degree will give them. “These include problem-solving, critical thinking, attention to detail, research, teamwork and, because people who work as pharmacists want to help others, they tend to have the interpersonal skills that are important for employers in all industries.
“The role is so diverse that the difficulty is in choosing one area. When you work as a pharmacist, you can become a part of your patient’s lives and I’ve been struck by how people can overcome the most extraordinary challenges. The most rewarding part of the job has been the trust placed in me, and it’s been great to be able to make such an impact.”
RCSI’s school of pharmacy and biomolecular science puts an emphasis on experiential learning, and modules are built around bodily systems and patient needs, rather than areas such as pharmaceutics, pharmacy management and pharmaceutical chemicals. Students learn clinical skills, undertake placements and take electives in non-pharmaceutical areas including philosophy or design.
Outside RCSI, students can undertake a level eight pharmacy degree at Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork. UCC's module includes the physiochemical basis of pharmaceuticals, cellular and molecular basis of drug action and toxicity, musculoskeletal and dermatology systems, oncology and malignant diseases and novel drug delivery. At Trinity College, meanwhile, modules include neuropharmacology and clinical therapeutics, addiction pharmacy, integrated pharmacy skills and blood, cardiovascular and renal pharmacology.
Waterford Institute of Technology runs a level eight pharmaceutical science degree aimed at preparing students for the industry roles in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries, while IT Sligo has a similar level eight pharmaceutical science course with a focus on drug development.
Two-year level six pharmacy technician courses, which prepare graduates for work alongside pharmacists, are available at IT Tralee, Letterkenny IT, IT Carlow, Athlone IT, and Technological University Dublin.
CAO POINTS 2019
Pharmacy (RCSI): 565
Pharmacy (Trinity): 567
Pharmacy (UCC): 577
Pharmaceutical science (WIT): 298
Pharmacy technician (IT Letterkenny): 216
RCSI MPharm class of 2019
"I was doing a bachelor of arts in music and history at Maynooth University and working part time in a pharmacy. I loved working on the healthcare counter and later in the dispensary. I loved the customer interaction and being able to help people.
“After my arts degree, I took a year out to work full time in a community pharmacy and make sure I wanted to commit to another five years.
“People who enjoy helping others and are good listeners can make good pharmacists. An important part of the job is interacting with patients and answering any queries or concerns they have and also counselling on medications, so having good communication skills is essential in community pharmacy, skills which you can develop with experience over time.
“It’s also important to be as organised as possible when working in a fast-paced and sometimes high-pressurised environment so everything runs as smoothly as possible.
“Covid-19 has had a major impact on how community pharmacists work – primarily in terms of consultations and how we can interact with patients.A top priority has been making sure that patients, particularly those cocooning, are still able to receive their medication, so volunteer groups have been helping to deliver medication and we have been contacting patients by phone and counselling on their medications or answering any queries this way.
“Adapting to this ‘new normal’ has been difficult, but pharmacists are still working with the patient at the forefront of all they do.
“The world of pharmacy is constantly changing, and the learning never really stops, so a huge part of the job is keeping on top of these changes and new medications, services or processes, and making sure your knowledge is as up to date as possible.
“The hours can be long and some days can be more challenging than others, as with any job and particularly with the times we are currently in, but it is a great career with so many opportunities and paths you can take, and it’s great to have these options.”