How to shift your pharmacy career from analogue to digital

Five tips to help pharmacy professionals digitise their career.

digital pharmacy

As the prominence of digital healthcare has increased, so too have the number of public and private sector career opportunities available for pharmacy professionals. These may include building and implementing electronic systems in care settings, developing innovative products for patient or clinician use, or facilitating effective use of data. This may sound technical, but pharmacy professionals working in healthcare technology are not there to replace technical experts. Instead, most  pharmacy professionals will form part of a multidisciplinary team, involving other healthcare professionals and a range of non-clinical experts, such as IT professionals, software developers and statisticians.

Healthcare professionals with a specialisation in digital healthcare are referred to as ‘clinical informaticians’. Increasing recognition of such roles has led to the formation of the Faculty of Clinical Informatics; digital fellowships, such as the Topol Fellowships; and digital leadership programmes, such as the NHS Digital Academy.

Basic IT skills and an understanding of current systems is incredibly important to help you become the “bridge” between technical and clinical teams

If you are interested in exploring this area, here are some top tips for your broader development from a range of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians across the field:

1. Check your digital literacy

Specific, expert technical qualifications are not necessarily a prerequisite for pharmacy professionals looking to move into a digitally-focused role; however, you need to be comfortable with using the most frequently used IT systems in your area of interest and software staples, such as Microsoft Office.

Basic IT skills and an understanding of current systems is incredibly important to help you become the “bridge” between technical and clinical teams.

It may be helpful to consider the digital capabilities framework from Health Education England to gauge where you are and identify any areas you may need to develop. Many organisations offer internal courses on various aspects of information technology and data, such as how to improve your skills in Microsoft Excel. Depending on your needs, identify some useful courses and discuss them at your next personal development review. For more practical experience and understanding of the systems, shadow other teams from other professions and in other sectors so you can broaden your perspective of the impact of digital across health and social care, as well as the barriers and challenges that digital solutions may help alleviate.

2. Vary your experience

No matter how good the digital tool, its value is negligible if it isn’t used. Implementation is an essential stage in digital transformation and, often, this is where clinicians provide some of the best insight and support. Principles of change management, project management and quality improvement should be applied, and many pharmacy professionals in this space have taken additional training and sometimes qualifications in these disciplines.

Digital transformation only works if everyone is on board — not just the informatics team

Examples of learning courses include PRINCE2 for project management and ITIL for IT service management. NHS England’s sustainable improvement team provides access to quality improvement fundamentals courses, as well as resources on leading large-scale changes within health.

Once a professional has built these skills to help drive transformation, excellent communication skills are essential to aid delivery; the ability to translate complex ideas to a variety of audiences is vital to enabling effective implementation. You need to be able to articulate your knowledge well to a variety of clinical and non-clinical staff as this will help engage and motivate digital users. Digital transformation only works if everyone is on board — not just the informatics team.

While some pharmacy professionals working in the digital field may no longer have a clinical role, many recommend trying to remain in practice for some of the time because pharmacy skills are transferable and highly valued in digital roles, especially those relating to risk management and safe practice. It also helps to keep aligned with the priorities and challenges in the ever-changing healthcare environment. Varied experience across more than one area or sector is also a bonus — integration and interoperability are priorities at the moment and having a good overview of the patient pathway and the systems within it, via direct experience or improved awareness, can be really helpful.

3. Get up-to-date with the digital landscape

Digital is everywhere and sometimes it can be hard to stay on top of all the advancements and discussions. First, it is worthwhile becoming familiar with the national policy direction, such as that outlined in ‘The future of healthcare: our vision for digital, data and technology in health and care’, published by the Department of Health and Social Care in October 2018.

National guidance, such as the ‘NHS Long Term Plan’, published in January 2019, is essential for shaping digital health priorities and you should be familiar with this, as well as any local priorities in your area. There are also independent reports supporting and elaborating on national aims — such as the ‘Topol Review’, published in February 2019 — which provide a useful overview on the likely direction of travel for digital in healthcare, as well as recommendations for the skills needed by the workforce, now and in the future.

Other organisations, such as the King’s Fund, have released several resources considering the practical implications of digital transformation in the current health and social care system, including several examples and lessons.

There are also some dedicated journals emerging in the field, such as
The Lancet Digital Health

The world of social media can also provide access to the latest information and discussions on digital in health. All major NHS organisations involved in the digital sphere — such as NHS Digital and NHSX — have a presence on Twitter and there are other more bespoke groups and forums — such as INTEROpen — on social media, which can be followed to keep up with the latest news.

4. Understand the use of data

Data informs everything in healthcare, including planning and commissioning services, assessing the impact of policy or changes, and reviewing variation in access, utilisation and outcomes for health services. Medicines data — and how it can be used to drive better care — is an important focus area and our sources of it are ever improving. 

Publicly available websites such as OpenPrescribing allow anyone to analyse primary care medicines data. OpenPrescribing also provides additional information on what various terms used in medication data analysis mean, as well as a range of blogs on particular areas of interest.

Even if your role doesn’t have specific data related responsibilities, good foundation knowledge is important for everyone

There are several roles that include a specific focus in this area for pharmacy professionals, such as within commissioning, and hospitals where medication data needs to be carefully interpreted to support services. Even if your role doesn’t have specific data-related responsibilities, good foundation knowledge is important for everyone. This was highlighted in the 2018 report on ‘Supporting early career pharmacy professionals in data driven care’ by the 2017/2018 chief pharmaceutical officer’s clinical fellows.

The ability to use data also applies to anyone involved in the digital technology fields. The increasing amount of data available from digital tools — such as electronic prescribing systems — needs to be harnessed and used effectively by pharmacy professionals in those fields. This will help increase our knowledge around processes and outcomes so we can continue to make improvements. When working with data, it is important to be familiar with the regulations and legislation around its use, such as GDPR — organisations should provide training on this. Having some statistical insight and understanding is also important to assist with meaningful analysis of data so it can be turned into useful information; there are several online courses available for anyone who is interested in increasing their knowledge in this area, such as those offered by Future Learn.

5. Widen your networks

As mentioned, Twitter is a great place to stay up to date and follow digital leaders, as well as wider groups. Many of these offer events and talks where you can meet other like-minded healthcare professionals with an interest in digital. Some suggested ones to follow include One HealthTech and NHS Hack Days. Following certain groups will provide an opportunity to explore your interests and find out about other more specific forums. Specific networks also exist in various digital fields.

The Faculty of Clinical Informatics Early Career Special Interest Group was launched in 2019 for clinicians at an early stage of their digital career — regardless of clinical grade or background. You can follow them on Twitter for more information @EarlycareersFCI. Updates will also be posted on the Faculty of Clinical Informatics website

From pharmacists working in digital:

Source: Yinka Makinde

Yinka Makinde originally trained as a pharmacist and is now the programme director for DigitalHealth.London:

“To be successful with digital transformation we have to get the staff to drive the change. There’s a lot of focus and energy right now on making digital transformation a reality and if we make sure we address the fundamentals, invest in these and support our staff we will get to a place where we don’t need to use the word digital — it’s just transformation.” 

Source: Andrew Heed

Andrew Heed is chief pharmacy information officer at Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust and emphasises:

“It’s not all about technology. It’s about people,” says Heed. “[We] design systems around what they need and help them engage and use [those systems]”.

Source: Ann Slee

Ann Slee is associate chief clinical information officer (medicines) at NHSX:

“Working in this space is incredibly rewarding. I have worked with some truly inspirational and knowledgeable people and patients and learnt a lot from and with them. No two days are ever the same! You use all of your training and then some; the opportunities in this arena are second to none and are only going to grow in the future. Go for IT…”

Source: Sue Faulding

Sue Faulding is a pharmacist and the deputy senior clinical lead for Data, Insights and Statistics at NHS Digital:

“The use of data aids more efficient services, enables better access to services and elements of patient records for shared decision making and facilitates ongoing care and planning for populations. Clinicians are key in maintaining safety and good governance, by providing context, insight and facilitating engagement.”

About the author

Vicky Chaplin is the chief pharmaceutical officer’s clinical fellow at NHS Digital. With a broad and varied background in pharmacy, she is currently the clinical lead for the NHS Apps Library and leading on two projects using national datasets. She is a co-founder of the Faculty of Clinical Informatics Early Career Special Interest Group. Twitter: @VickyChaplin3

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, How to shift your pharmacy career from analogue to digital;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2019.20206750

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