Pharmacist Rob Morris has spent his career developing and selling medicines for farm animals and pets. He encourages other pharmacists to consider the sector, even though jobs may be scarce.
How did you come to be involved in veterinary pharmacy?
Veterinary pharmacy was an area of the profession I had never considered when I registered in the late 1970s. The choice then was either community or hospital and, having briefly tried both, neither appealed. I found the dispensary environment claustrophobic and there was little scope for creativity.
I began to look around for alternative careers and a pharmacist job was advertised in mid Wales for an agricultural and veterinary pharmacy. The job was based in a large agricultural store — a converted railway shed — that had a registered pharmacy inside. It involved advising on and supplying veterinary medicines and crop chemicals to farmers and growers. It could not have been further from the cosy, somewhat sterile community pharmacy environment I had been working in. I found the job fascinating because a whole new area (livestock farming) had opened up to me.
I needed further training and, fortunately, a new postgraduate diploma based at Aston University was offered by the then Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB). Many of the human pharmaceutical companies had smaller veterinary divisions and provided excellent training programmes based around their product ranges. I further trained to advise on crop chemicals at Harper Adams College in Shropshire. I cannot emphasise the importance of training strongly enough and I was fortunate to be able to learn on the job while also studying from academic institutions. I went on to gain a marketing diploma and MBA.
What skills have you learnt that are specific to veterinary pharmacy?
The skills you learn as a veterinary pharmacist are those of listening carefully and evaluating options, drawing from your in-depth knowledge, in order to prescribe and supply appropriate products or simply give advice. It is comparable to advising on pharmacy medicines except there are several different animal species and a plethora of products for farm animals and pets. You cannot make any diagnoses because that is the sole prerogative and responsibility of the veterinary surgeon.
Having learnt veterinary pharmacy at the sharp end, I decided to join one of the large veterinary pharmaceutical companies in a sales role, which enabled me to meet many different retailers, vets and farmers. From there I went in to the company’s marketing department and took on a range of vaccines and anthelmintics. This involved responsibility for the UK and certain exports so it was a steep learning curve.
My scientific background, and pharmacy training in particular, enabled me to assimilate existing and new products and their markets quickly. My customer-facing roles had been invaluable in understanding the needs of the market place.
What is the most interesting role you have ever had and why?
One of my most interesting roles was product manager at Hoechst UK (a company no longer operating in the UK), where I helped launch a new pig vaccine to the UK and European markets. I had been involved from conception of the product through to launch so it took more than five years. The product combined two commonly used vaccines to make farmers’ lives easier. My role involved developing branding, packaging, advertising and sales launch. The product was a success both in the UK and abroad so it was a satisfying experience.
Are there any challenges specific to veterinary pharmacy?
It depends how involved you want to be in veterinary pharmacy — you could develop knowledge around pet medicines to use in a community pharmacy or have a complete change of career direction as I did. The challenges therefore are to acquire the appropriate level of knowledge, training and, in some cases, formal postgraduate qualifications.
The agricultural and veterinary diploma course offered to me in the 1980s has been developed and tailored and is now administered and run by Harper Adams University, Shropshire. The veterinary pharmacy courses at Harper Adams University are run in conjunction with the RPS’s Veterinary Pharmacy Education Programme.
This qualification is primarily intended for pharmacists involved or wishing to develop an involvement in the animal health industry and in the supply and use of animal medicinal products. The full programme would typically be delivered on a part-time basis and studied over three years, with students completing the taught modules to achieve a postgraduate diploma within the first two years and those continuing to MSc completing the master’s dissertation within an individually negotiated timescale of one to two years.
Another challenge is to develop empathy with and gain the respect of veterinary surgeons and animal owners, particularly farmers. It is not impossible, though, and I found farmers to be loyal and appreciative clients if you offer good advice and cost-effective vet medicines.
How has veterinary pharmacy changed since you first began practising it?
One significant change has been the specialisation across the various animal species so there are rarely generalists these days. Veterinary surgeons have reflected this change by splitting into companion animal-only practices, equine practices, ruminant practices and poultry and pig specialisms.
Companion animal medicines, and perhaps equine medicines in certain areas, are the preserve of community pharmacy. There are still specialised agricultural pharmacies but sadly these are far less common because the economies of scale have resulted in large corporate agricultural retailers, which choose not to employ pharmacists, dominating the sector. Therefore, there is now a dearth of pharmacists involved in the veterinary sector.
Suitably qualified persons (SQPs) are allowed to advise and prescribe most of the veterinary medicines pharmacists can also supply so this may have discouraged employers in this sector offering opportunities to relatively expensive pharmacist professionals.
Would you encourage other pharmacists to get involved in veterinary pharmacy?
Despite these comments I would encourage pharmacists to consider this area of the profession. Although human pharmacy is technically challenging and offers relatively secure employment, veterinary pharmacy provides more scope to develop specialist skills and go in a direction of your choice — be it industry (sales, technical support, regulatory affairs or marketing), agriculture, community pharmacy or perhaps an internet veterinary pharmacy. However, you may have to accept a salary drop in order to gain the right experience.