Mairead Conlon’s infectious positivity and pride in community pharmacy is being passed on to the next generation of pharmacists in Northern Ireland.
“I have never known anyone with such a passion for community pharmacy and a keenness to nurture young pharmacists in what a wonderful profession we have,” said the person who nominated Conlon.
And this is backed up by her work in redeveloping the Ulster Chemists’ Association — Northern Ireland’s (UCA-NI’s) preregistration programme. The programme is open to all community pharmacy trainees — particularly those working in small chains/independent pharmacies, which is a third of this year’s overall cohort (49/142).
By her own admission, the programme needed a fresh pair of eyes and is unrecognisable from when Conlon began in 2015. According to her nominator, the programme is now “extremely well laid out, with a balance between exam preparation and practical topics, which reinforces the trainee’s undergraduate learning, always with great focus on patient outcomes”.
With meticulous detail, Conlon developed what was needed from a student, employer and tutor perspective. In Northern Ireland, the preregistration exam has always been set by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI), rather than the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), as happens in the rest of the UK. When Conlon took over, she introduced structured exam preparation — which was not there before — breaking the syllabus up into manageable ‘chunks’, and then having monthly open and closed book exam style tests at each preregistration training day.
She also advised that better pastoral care was needed for the students, so she became “a listening ear” for them.
“[Trainees] now expect more,” says Conlon. “They want to know what training is being provided in a preregistration [placement] before they accept a position and [with this programme] employers know they will be offering good quality training.”
However, Conlon’s work supporting trainees and trainers became much more difficult during the COVD-19 pandemic, particularly as the preregistration exam for 2019–2020 was delayed until August in Northern Ireland, which differs from the rest of the UK where exams were cancelled. From 2020–2021, the exam moves to a four-country assessment, which has been agreed between the PSNI and GPhC.
“ has been crazy. Everyone was under huge amounts of pressure and the volume of work in community pharmacy was through the roof,” she says.
Conlon adds that the phone did not stop ringing with pharmacists and trainees in tears or full of anger: “I didn’t have a crystal ball, but I was able to signpost them to key documents and provide a place to vent. My relationship with them had already developed so it meant I could be that person. I had a duty of care.”
Luckily, preregistration trainees have adapted quickly to online training — sometimes on Sundays — during the pandemic. “I’m grateful to have been in a position where I could provide that. I feel especially that, with international [trainees], it’s good to have someone there who can just be kind. I had [trainees] who phoned up who weren’t on my course originally to say ‘Can you help? Can I do this as well?’”
In addition to her work in pharmacy education, Conlon has also worked hard to improve communication across employee and locum pharmacists, and widen the reach of UCA-NI within community pharmacy. First, with a Facebook group and, more recently, a Telegram group now with more than 350 members.
“It’s great because we have so many different pharmacists in there. Emails are traditionally sent to contractors and things can get lost, so I fill that gap.”
Conlon continues to work in community pharmacy each week and is also the community pharmacist coordinator for IMPACT Agewell — a three-year project run across 15 GP practices in Northern Ireland to address the health and social needs of older people.
“It has always been the part of the job I’m most passionate about,” she says. “I know GPs aren’t closed but the system isn’t easy to navigate, so we’re seeing a lot more people coming in … people trust us and I very much value that and don’t take that for granted.”
Conlon is a true champion of community pharmacy in Northern Ireland and a ray of light for a sector that has struggled in recent years. For her, it is all about providing a good service for her patients: “I work in a very socially deprived area and knowing they have a community pharmacy team they can trust – I don’t take that lightly.”
“During the COVID crisis, she got on the phone and rang every single one of the preregs. That shows proper leadership”
“This is someone doing something a bit different in community pharmacy”
“Passionate, nurtures the young, shows real leadership and breaks down barriers”
Meet the rest of The Pharmaceutical Journal’s Women to Watch 2020 here.