Ever since she qualified in 2019, Iqra Sarwar noticed a tendency in her community pharmacy colleagues to avoid reading research papers, so she started a ‘Journal club’ to rectify the problem.
Now, every other Wednesday for around 40 minutes over Zoom, Sarwar meets with a group of pharmacists who work in a variety of sectors to break down a topic, such as a type of statistical analysis, before a group member presents a journal paper of their choice for further discussion.
“There are experienced pharmacists who haven’t done research in years and years,” she says. “I saw the impact of that with pharmacists saying things like, ‘You had better ask the GP’ or not being able to answer patients’ questions in that much depth.”
Having initially opened the club to community and preregistration pharmacists in NHS Grampian, the invitation to join was later extended to hospital and primary care pharmacists who asked to get involved. Then, shortly after, NHS Highland also got on board.
“There was clearly an unmet need. There are around 50+ on the mailing list now,” she says, adding that “everyone has said it’s been useful”.
Indeed, one person taking part in the classes said: “Iqra insightfully had realised a way to benefit her colleagues, to share her skills in a time when the [COVID-19] pandemic had affected how we learn and the number of opportunities pharmacists had to learn.”
Sarwar is well placed to lead discussions on research papers. During her pharmacy degree, she did several research projects and internships, including a summer spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and eight weeks at the University of Cambridge, looking at ways to identify genes of interest for clinical research.
“That was definitely a steep learning curve. All of this experience together taught me all the ways we can do research and analyse things,” she says.
Sarwar adds that having a strong background in medical research has helped countless times in her community pharmacy role — from looking up information on off-label treatments to discuss with doctors, to answering detailed queries from a patient about a new medicine.
It also made her realise that she does not have a specific idea of what she wants to do in her future career.
“I have realised that I want my career to be something that makes a real difference to people’s lives, whether it’s through projects, or policy initiatives,” says Sarwar. “I’m really interested in collaborative healthcare and using clinical knowledge within healthcare innovation.”
With a brother in medical school, she is aware that outside the traditional paths there are still fewer roles for pharmacists compared with doctors — so she is carving her own.
Earlier in 2021, Sarwar and her two siblings set up a charity ‘Stand Tall Above Scoliosis’, after a relative was diagnosed with the condition. The mission is to provide education and support to those with scoliosis in an accessible way, having learned first-hand that information can be hard to come by.
“We worked a bit backwards because we had this bigger vision, so we started with that long-term goal,” she says.
“In Scotland, Edinburgh is the only centre where [scoliosis] surgery is done so it’s really hard for those outside the centre to find the support and we have seen that up close.” Sarwar is hoping the charity can make a difference, first in Scotland, and later to the rest of the UK.
While early in her career, she says she is “passionate” about forging her own path to inspire other pharmacy professionals that the traditional pharmacy role is not the only option.
“As a pharmacist, woman and ethnic minority, you’re not really supposed to take risks and stray from the path but I just thought why not,” she says.
“I have had so many good mentors along the way, but I did learn to be more vocal about my curiosity.”
“For a locum pharmacist to achieve so much on her own is really impressive.”
“Really thinking innovatively about how to benefit colleagues and patients, and stretching herself to achieve. Great potential and a definite woman to watch.”
“Clear drive and commitment to push for change and knowledge sharing, although without the support of a larger organisation.”
Meet the rest of The Pharmaceutical Journal’s Women to Watch 2021 here