Q&A: ‘We should be worried when students are failing to become pharmacists’

As wide variation persists between UK universities’ pass rates for the GPhC registration exam, Stephen Robinson asks English Pharmacy Board member Claire Anderson, professor of social pharmacy at the University of Nottingham, what this means for students and the wider profession.

English Pharmacy Board member Claire Anderson (pictured), professor of social pharmacy at the University of Nottingham, talks about the growing gap of UK universities' pass rates for the GPhC registration exam and the wider profession

When the pass rates for the June 2014 General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) registration exam were published in May 2015, they showed a variation of 30 percentage points between UK universities, a divide that is higher than four years ago.

What is the consequence of varying pass rates on the future workforce and patient care?

The registration exam screens out poor-quality trainees, thus protecting patients from substandard care. However, if we want future pharmacists who will provide the best patient care, we need to ensure that we have high-quality MPharm courses taking high-quality students. In a time when some say we have too many pharmacists and as Health Education England (HEE) is looking at controlling numbers of pre-registration places, I believe it should consider the quality of MPharm courses, as the pass rates suggest some universities’ courses may be better than others.

We want all pharmacists to be the best that they can be. The first 1,000 days of practice and the foundation years are really crucial too. We need to ensure that newly qualified pharmacists have the support they need to develop. Of course, it’s not all about passing an exam; it’s about competence and experience too.

Is this variation necessarily bad for students and the pharmacy profession, or simply a reflection of differing undergraduate admission standards between universities?

You could look at this in a number of ways. If the poor-quality students fail to get on the register then we are protecting patients. However, this is a real waste and we should be worried if students with low tariff scores (A level entry criteria) are being admitted and then failing to become pharmacists.

One or two universities with a much lower tariff on admission than others have very good registration exam results. So it is also about adding value during the undergraduate years and the quality of the MPharm course.

Do pass rates reflect the quality of the universities’ courses, the abilities of students, the standard of their pre-registration placements, or a combination thereof?

Obviously all of the above. They are clearly linked to the quality of the MPharm course. I am sure a good pre-registration placement can help develop a graduate who performed poorly at university, and that a good student can endure a poor-quality pre-registration placement, but they shouldn’t have to.

How would you expect pass rates to change in 2016 when the exam will become more patient-focused?

I’m not sure I should like to speculate on that. Many MPharm courses have changed and become patient-focused, so it will be interesting to see the differences that these new, more integrated MPharm courses contribute to the pass rate. However, I would reiterate that the pass rate is so clearly linked to tariff score that I wonder how much difference it will make if universities continue to take students with low scores at A level.

What does the Royal Pharmaceutical Society do to support schools of pharmacy and students to improve pass rates?

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), along with my board colleague Mahendra Patel, have developed and supported the role of student champions in schools of pharmacy to ensure students are aware of the support and tools the RPS can offer.

The RPS runs courses to help with the registration exam, including running mock exams. These happen every year around the country and have been incredibly successful and well supported.

The RPS support team is available 9am–5pm, Monday to Friday to help with questions about revision. Pre-registration members can log on to our pre-registration web pages to listen to our revision podcast, read the guide on using the British National Formulary effectively and download RPS tips for the assessment day.

Pre-registration trainees can also access a range of online professional resources to support their revision. A webinar recorded by Pharmacist Support provides advice for anyone feeling stressed. They also get 30 days’ free access to revision website ONtrack, and they are entitled to a 50% discount on further subscriptions. An RPS member can get a discount of at least 25% on all Pharmaceutical Press titles, including the Registration Exam Questions series.

Should the Royal Pharmaceutical Society take a greater role alongside the General Pharmaceutical Council to improve exam performance and the standard of pharmacy education?

To maintain patient safety, we need to continue to lobby the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) about the importance of maintaining the quality of pharmacy education. We need to ensure that the tariff scores for pharmacy remain high. I believe that we also need to ensure that the GPhC does more to improve the quality of tutors and pre-registration placements, and that more needs to be done to support pre-registration tutors in their role.

Perhaps we need to move to accreditation and inspection of pre-registration providers. I could envisage that, going forward, we could say all tutors need to be working towards a certification like Faculty membership.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 20 June 2015, Vol 294, No 7867;294(7867):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20068709

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