Q&A: New RPS president Martin Astbury

Two years after he was succeeded by Ash Soni, recently affirmed RPS president and self-professed ‘Joe Bloggs pharmacist’ Martin Astbury says he has learnt from his four terms from 2010 to 2014 and is ready to serve the Society again.

Martin Astbury, vice president of English Pharmacy Board

On 19 July 2016, Martin Astbury was affirmed the new president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), two years after stepping down following a four-year term from 2010 to 2014. Here, he explains why he decided now was the right time to return to the role and what his priorities will be for the coming year.

There’s been a lot of discussion around Ash Soni having to step down from the role of RPS president, which has led to questions raised over the governance of the RPS as a whole. What will you do to reassure members that their concerns are being listened to?

In 2015, our fifth year as the RPS, we started the process of checking that our governance system is fit for purpose. This review is ongoing and any suggested changes are likely to emerge at the next Assembly meeting in November 2016. Any substantive changes will be consulted on with RPS members.

We’d love more people to participate in voting for the board elections, although we’re not out of step with other membership organisations in terms of turnout. But I would still prefer people to be engaged. We are their representatives – you need to make sure you’re putting the right people there, but if you don’t vote, you don’t get. At the moment, our academic colleagues seem to get the message – they are voting. The other sectors need to do the same to have their voices heard.

I hope that my background as someone who calls himself a ‘Joe Bloggs pharmacist’ and tends to think in the same way as the average member will give reassurance to the membership.

Different presidents have different styles. All that I can promise is to be the best president that I can possibly be

Why did you step down from the role of RPS president two years ago and why did you feel that now is the right time to lead the Society again?

I ended up holding presidency for four terms, which is longer than any RPS president before. You do need a reasonably long term to do justice to the role but I felt it was time to step aside and let someone else take on the load. With Ash as one of the 2014 candidates, I felt we had someone who would be able to take forward those visions that we collectively had.

I did not envisage returning to the presidency at all until Ash was not re-elected to the RPS Assembly, and therefore could not continue as president. One of the first people I spoke to before making the decision to put myself forward was Ash himself. With all the big things happening at the moment, many colleagues encouraged me that I could once again serve the Society and was someone who would be able to keep it developing.

What lessons have you learnt as RPS president and from seeing others take on the role? How do you intend to improve?

Different presidents have different styles. All that I can promise is to be the best president that I can possibly be.

First time around, I learnt to ensure that all processes are as transparent as possible. The president has accountability within this organisation and I always make sure I have a proper audit trail so I can justify my actions.

Having a thick skin is also very important, as well as taking time to reflect on what people have said. I don’t class myself as an appeaser but I do believe in trying to reach a decision that everyone can agree on. I have absolutely no problem in having robust discussions in order to get to the right outcome, but to do that you need a strong mandate and backing.

What will be your immediate priority and how will you do it?

My immediate priority is to make sure that the work taking place is facilitated. I see my role as president as being a facilitator in two ways – overseeing what the RPS chief executive is doing and seeing if there is anything I can to do to help, while ensuring that the three national boards and Assembly are pulling in the same direction and have the tools to allow delivery.

The number of members and development of the Faculty are important priorities, in terms of getting a system in place that is the model of choice for when revalidation comes. The rebalancing of medicines legislation and pharmacy regulation work continues and as president, I’ll be taking my place on the rebalancing board again. The board is also looking at supervision: if the RPS doesn’t take a solid patient/member-centred view then the likely result will be pharmacies without pharmacists.

When you take money out of community pharmacy they will look to direct overheads, and the simplest overhead is people

How do you intend to facilitate work between the three national boards?

We have a forum where the board chairs and myself meet up with the relevant RPS staff members and we’ll be doing this on a regular basis to help coordinate policy development and share learning. I’m in a relatively unique position in that, prior to being president of the RPS, I was vice president of the RPSGB for three years, meaning that for seven years I was an ex-officio member of both the Welsh and Scottish Pharmacy Boards. A lot has changed over the past two years but it’s handy to know how the boards have developed. I live and work on the English/Welsh border, so I know what’s going on in both countries, which is very handy indeed.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing pharmacists at present, within the context of proposed funding cuts and Brexit?

All areas will be tested financially. The English Pharmacy Board is taking a strong position in respect to the cuts being proposed. The community sector is a commercial environment, with companies wanting to make a return on investment. Therefore, when you take out money they will look to direct overheads, and the simplest overhead is people. When I first qualified, I believed there was enough money in the system whereby you did your job and there was flexibility if you wanted to do additional staff training or take extra time with patients. The concern for me is that we’ve lost that wriggle room – that extra time that pharmacists would have given freely to have a word with ‘that person’. Now they’ve taken money out of the systems, they’ll call it efficiencies, but it’s a devaluing of the supply function.

In terms of Brexit, I don’t envisage a drastic impact on the way pharmacy is run within the three countries. I’m aware that some pharmacy schools are concerned and I will be looking to find out what those concerns are. If there’s an impact on research then that is a concern, and we’ll try to help minimise that. We’ve looked at doing some horizon scanning and if new legislation gets written then we will input into that as and when it comes.

Will you be continuing to lead the RPS on the path towards royal college status? And what will this change mean?

In my opinion, we’re already a royal college. During my second term of presidency, whenever I went somewhere I would introduce myself as from the ‘Royal Pharmaceutical Society: the professional body and royal college for pharmacy and pharmacists’. 

The difference is the name, the gravitas that comes with it and the status it gives during discussions with other organisations. Other royal colleges already recognise us as the royal college, so I don’t see a dramatic change. I hope people do not envisage that moving to a royal college would mean we were no longer a professional body or a membership organisation – we have a charter that clearly states what we are here to do.

Always in the back of my mind are what members think – as a leader you should be a small step ahead of the membership, not a mile ahead. You should have the vision for where you’re going and how to get there but you always have to take the members with you.

We have to look at member numbers – people will speak with their feet

How do you intend to engage younger members of the profession?

I still have good links with the members of the British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association. Ash was brilliant in that respect and I’ll be looking to build on those relationships. At first we got pushed back when we looked to introduce the reduced fee for our younger members. It was something the Assembly took a bold decision to do after recognising the difficult financial position that our younger members are in. We’re looking out for leaders within that age group to see how they think we can do things best.

What initiatives need to be put in place to encourage peer-reviewed research from the pharmacy sector?

I’m pleased that I have a continuing role in relation to Pharmacy Research UK. Research is not my area of expertise but it’s something that I would look to develop and I’m delighted with the developments we’ve had with Clinical Pharmacist. I like the idea of peer review coming through Clinical Pharmacist and I assume that that in itself will encourage more pharmacy research.

How will you measure the RPS’s success over the coming year?

We have to look at member numbers – people will speak with their feet; if you aren’t delivering and the numbers were to move in the wrong direction you’d have to look at why. We need to continue to deliver quality products and get them recognised worldwide.

I’d also be looking at whether pharmacists are being utilised by the health systems in all three countries and whether we’ve helped to create extra roles, develop the roles that are there and influence legislation. To a large extent we open the doors; its then for those who negotiate the contract on behalf of pharmacy to walk through.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, August 2016, Vol 297, No 7892;297(7892):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2016.20201497

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