Career Choices – Hospital Pharmacist


Defining what a hospital pharmacist does is probably beyond the scope of this article and will vary significantly depending on the area of work and grade of the position. In essence, every hospital pharmacist will be involved in some aspects of governance to promote and ensure the safe, efficacious, and cost-effective use of medications within a secondary care (hospital) setting. I have been a hospital pharmacist now for more than thirty years and have no regrets about this choice of career. Being a retail or community pharmacist is an almost entirely different job, which I did not enjoy. I often say that I spent three-and-a-half long months in the community pharmacy sector because it felt like that. My experience in the following article relates almost exclusively to my career as a hospital pharmacist.

Having some aptitude for chemistry at school, I was drawn to a career in which I thought the subject of chemistry would be integral. However, living in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, there were few industries that majored in chemical processes, and, from a practical standpoint, I decided that a job in pure chemistry (apart from teaching) would almost certainly require relocation, and therefore I chose pharmacy as a career. I applied for five university courses, only one of which was pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast, the others being various courses of chemistry and metallurgy at a variety of academic centres. Interestingly, the postbox was set on fire where I had posted my ‘UCCA’ (now ‘UCAS’) form, and the only part of my application that survived the fire was a postage stampsized area of my name and address. This was returned to me by the postman, and obviously alerted me to resubmit my application form. I have often wondered about the way in which God works and overrules. Why hospital pharmacy?

The potential to make big money in retail pharmacy, which could potentially be exploited, does not exist in the hospital sector, which is one reason why hospital pharmacy was so attractive to me. During my time in retail pharmacy, I had been good at sales, but I had felt uneasy selling the products that were stocked on pharmacy shelves when I wasn’t always convinced about their efficacy or value for money. I was employed, and as a good employee, I felt that I should make as much money as possible for my employer. Yet I was not convinced about the value of some of the products that I was expected to sell, especially to those who were vulnerable through illness. Hospital pharmacy was a more natural and happier place for me to be.

Hospital pharmacy used to be much more attractive to the believer in relation to time commitments than it has become lately. When I started as a young hospital pharmacist in 1991, it was largely a 9-to-5 job, with few, if any, weekends, and an emergency duty/on call system where the calls were fewer, and much less complex than they have become currently. Nowadays, in hospital, a junior pharmacist will be expected to work evenings and weekends on a rotational basis, with emergency duty commitment as a required duty to be undertaken. This reflects the changing 24/7 nature of healthcare in the 21st century and is not exclusive to hospital pharmacy.

Hospital pharmacy may not be suitable for everyone, but the roles have broadened so that it is possible for pharmacists to find a niche role that suits them. The other side of this coin is that it is impossible for one person to know the intricacies of each job within hospital pharmacy. It is joked - but commonly recognized -that pharmacists are sticklers for detail, and have some obsessive character traits, where every ‘t’ must be crossed and every ‘i’ dotted. I have known colleagues who have not been able to cope well with the vast amount of knowledge that is thought to be required, and some have had to leave their jobs simply because of excessive worry about the fear of missing something that they should have noticed on medicine charts/notes etc. I would not recommend hospital pharmacy as a job for those who are easily stressed, and are conscientious beyond that which is reasonable, right, and healthy.

Among the issues that I feel should be raised - just to make young people aware - may be the expectation by employers of pharmacists to dispense oral contraception, ‘the morning after pill’ and abortifacient drugs. Even within the cohort of Christians working as pharmacists, there is a variance of opinion on what should be done when faced with these issues, which muddies things a little. However, the guidance of scripture and the principle of ‘them that honour me, I will honour’ ought to be our governing framework, 1 Sam. 2. 30. Some time ago, a Muslim pharmacist was successfully supported by his union when he refused to dispense a medication that would have been used for a purpose that violated his conscience. How much more should a Christian take the word of God seriously, and, like Luther, state, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen’. However, I am aware that things are moving in a more secular direction, and one of the principles that is being promoted now is that the wishes of the patient should override the beliefs of any individual registrant member (pharmacist). Openings to speak for God do arise, even in the context of the above-mentioned classes of drugs, and I have had the opportunity to state both to management and to other staff why I believe what I do. I believe a measure of respect from others has been earned by a resolute but respectfully informed discussion, Dan. 1. 8-21; 3. 16-18.

I do not believe I could enjoy any other job more than I enjoy my current one. Recently, in the role of chair of a recruitment panel for junior hospital pharmacists, at the conclusion of one of the interviews, I was asked a question by one of the young applicants. ‘Do you like your job?’ she ventured. I replied, ‘I love every second of it!’ to which one of my fellow panellists added, ‘And he’s not even joking!’

When I started in the hospital over thirty years ago, I recall being one of eleven pharmacists working there. Today, the service has expanded to the point where there are about one hundred pharmacists in our hospital. This has given me ample opportunities for teaching and mentoring those more junior, for showing kindness and giving encouragement. In turn, those helped will more readily receive a word in season.

From the point of view of keeping a home and family, I have found the pay in the NHS to be adequate to enable me, by the help of God, to provide sufficiently for my wife and four children. The holidays and conditions of employment are also most favourable, for which I am very thankful.

If the Lord guides you into a career in hospital pharmacy I trust that you will find it as enjoyable a career as I have done.