Sandra Gidley: ‘It’s not appropriate for the RPS to take a stance on Brexit’

As former chair of the English Pharmacy Board, newly elected president Sandra Gidley says she is in a great place to engage with members and continue steering the Society’s work to raise pharmacy’s profile in the wider healthcare sector.

Sandra Gidley

After stepping down as chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPS’s) English Pharmacy Board (EPB) in June 2019, Sandra Gidley was elected as the first female president of the RPS since it was formed as a leadership body, on 16 July 2019, taking over from Ash Soni. 

Gidley spoke to The Pharmaceutical Journal about the importance of member engagement, her hopes for the next two years and the Society’s position on Brexit.

You recently stepped down as chair of English Pharmacy Board: what prompted you to stand for president?  

Everybody assumes — particularly men — that the only job worth having is president, but I take a different view. I think that the three national pharmacy board chairs have the most important jobs in the organisation and, after four years as chair of the EPB, I thought “I know the organisation well, and I’ve built up good relations with Wales and Scotland — there might be something I can do to help strengthen that board chair role”. 

The other thing I thought I could do is spend time helping to join things up and help the naional pharmacy boards learn from the best practice of others. That was the main motivation to stand as president.

The real focus for me over the next two years will be precisely on the membership. The RPS has just launched a membership survey, which has been planned for some time — it has nothing to do with me. But I will be taking a very close interest in the findings and, hopefully, it will help me to work with staff and members to do more of what our members want.

You’ve described Ash Soni’s presidency as “excellent”. Will there be any changes in direction or priority under your term?  

With my background in politics, starting off as a local councillor; involving constituents or members is really important — we need to be seen to be open

There are things we just need to get on with. Over the past four years, I’ve been frustrated, sometimes — when we seem to make a decision, nothing happens. I’ll be looking at what’s on the back burner and whether it needs to be brought forward.

Also, there have been a number of comments about how members can have say in the organisation. With my background in politics, starting off as a local councillor; involving constituents or members is really important. We need to be seen to be open and that we are making decisions with the support of members, and not just handing something down. I will be spending some time thinking how we can improve on that. 

One of the things that I’m excited about — and again, this is not something that was my decision — is our conference in November 2019. We will offer much more visibility over what the boards do and we will also have an opportunity for members to put things forward for debate. Until recently, if members wanted to raise something with us, there had been no mechanisms where we could guarantee it would get back to the people who make the decision. I’m keen this is not a token exercise and that people will be able to come along to the conference, we can hear their views, and then we can reflect and hopefully improve the organisation.  

The RPS in its current form has only been around for nine years. There are lots of things we’ve inherited and we’re learning and improving as we go. By involving the members more, we will improve faster.  

How do you respond to those who say the president should have been a new face from outside the Society?  

It’s all very well saying that, but not everybody in the organisation wants to be president. The person elected has to have the confidence of the Assembly. That is paramount.

I’m probably the first president who has been around the organisation — in a senior leadership role — long enough to understand how it works

Having a new face just for the sake of it, it’s tokenism. I’m probably the first president who has been around the organisation — in a senior leadership role — long enough to understand how it works and to be in a position to more quickly look at how we can improve on things.  

It goes back to my answer to your earlier question, about the importance of the board chairs. That is something that I shall reinforce throughout my presidency. 

You’ve said you support fixed terms of office: will you stand for president again at the end of this term?  

I don’t know. I’ve learned never to make life plans. I will assess that after the end of two years. I have young grandchildren and I want to be able to enjoy them as they grow up, so I am not making any promises. I have a private thought on it, but that’s going to remain with me for now.  

How do you plan to work across the three nations?  

We can learn a lot from Scotland and Wales. Partly because they are smaller and less complex and bureaucratic at the top — it has been easier in Wales and Scotland to promote the role of the pharmacist. We need to cross-pollinate a bit and learn from that. 

We are one RPS and I don’t like this siloed, not ‘This is Wales’; ‘This is Scotland’

We are one RPS and I don’t like this siloed, not “This is Wales”; “This is Scotland”. We need to get much better at promoting the pharmacist and everyone in the profession. That doesn’t always happen and it is a focus that I would like to bring.

You will (probably) be president when the UK leaves the EU. Is it time for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to take an official stance on Brexit?  

I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to take a stance on Brexit. There’s been a referendum and our members are likely to have voted in pretty much the same proportions to the referendum.

We’ve been quite clear that there are concerns about a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, and by raising those concerns with the NHS we have helped ensure that there is good preparation. Turning our attention and focus to that, while asking pertinent questions, has probably been helpful.  

Whatever we say in isolation is not going to change the big picture. We don’t get involved in the politics, but we make sure we’re doing all we can to ensure that public disruption is kept to an absolute minimum and provide help and support for our members in achieving that.  

Did you meet the health secretary Matt Hancock when you were chair of the English Pharmacy Board?

We never quite managed a meeting with Matt Hancock: it just hasn’t happened. We’ve met successive pharmacy ministers and had a good relationship with Steve Brine.

I do have some connections from my time in politics. Life is life, and you use those where you can! 

I do think it is less easy for ministers to do exactly what they want with the NHS now that we have a chief executive in Simon Stevens. It’s just persuading him what battles they might want to take on on behalf of pharmacy.  

I do have some connections from my time in politics. Life is life, and you use those where you can!  

Should the Society become a royal college?  

In the past, I said that I didn’t think the time was appropriate; but as we mature as an organisation I think this is something we want to engage our members with.

Some of them can’t see the point, but others would love to have the prestige of belonging to their profession’s royal college. I think the drift of feeling now — and this is far from universal — is that this is something we should start looking at.

It’s an expensive process; it takes time and energy, and there are probably other things within the organisation that we need to get right first. I regard us as a membership organisation first and foremost and that focus will have to continue, whatever happens.  

What do you hope to have achieved by the end of your term, with the Society and for the profession?  

Membership is going to be my focus. I want people to really appreciate the value of membership and to feel more part of the organisation. I would urge members to get involved in our mentorship scheme when it is launched in October 2019. Come along to the RPS Conference in November and network — start to get involved.  

With regards to the profession, I want to look back and see pharmacists utilised more in the healthcare system. As a community pharmacist myself, it’s obviously very close to my heart, but I’m a president for all sectors. We need to build on the good work that’s been done already with raising the profile of the profession, and go from there.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, August 2019, Vol 303, No 7928;303(7928):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2019.20206873

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