Four years ago, I came to the UK. I’m originally from Egypt and I’m a qualified pharmacist in my home country. I’d worked in both community and hospital pharmacy, although I spent the majority of my career working in the hospital sector.
I left my country in September 2017; my family and I felt unsafe, and so we had to claim asylum in the UK. It was a stressful and difficult experience, and it took some time to get permission to remain. Nonetheless, I was enthusiastic to learn the language and integrate well into the community, so I enrolled in college and achieved my advanced level English. I then looked into becoming registered as a pharmacist in the UK. However, I found it really difficult to navigate the search; I wasn’t even sure where to start looking for information.
So I decided to forget about pharmacy, which was a really difficult decision. Pharmacy had been the only career I had ever worked in and my dream job since childhood — I really enjoy this type of work. But, instead, I started an interpreting course and began work as a volunteer interpreter.
Then I found out about The Bridges Programmes, an agency that supports refugees and asylum seekers to get into work or education and training, and Skills Recognition Scotland, a government programme that recognises the qualifications of migrants and refugees, especially in sectors where there is a skills shortage in the UK.
The support of both these schemes has helped me tremendously. In March 2020, I attended a meeting that the organisations had arranged to help pharmacists explore the transferability of their skills. At the meeting, we met professionals from pharmacy and other sectors, who patiently listened to our experiences and the obstacles we face to achieve our career objectives.
Before I attended that meeting I felt quite alone but, afterwards, I realised that there are other colleagues who were once pharmacists and who, like me, are struggling to see if their qualifications can be recognised in Scotland and the rest of the UK. The experience motivated me to try to enrol on a pharmacy technician course. I was successful in getting a place, but from the start I was hesitant; I felt that the 12 years of learning and practice that I already had was being underestimated. I had also heard that there is a shortage of pharmacists in the UK, so I thought it would be more useful for me to pursue becoming recognised as a pharmacist here: after all, it would probably take the same amount of time as completing the pharmacy technician course.
Then, the pandemic changed everything. But, personally, I must say that this challenging time helped me to achieve things that I could not have accomplished in normal life. Skills Recognition Scotland arranged regular webinar sessions to help us prepare our personal statements and CVs, and explore how our experience would be useful to employers.
I started studying for the International English Language Testing System English exam, which is a requirement from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) for all overseas pharmacists for whom English is not their first language. Passing this was the first substantial step towards applying for a place on the GPhC’s Overseas Pharmacists Assessment Programme (OSPAP), a one-year postgraduate diploma for pharmacists who qualified overseas to get them up to speed for UK practice.
I’ve been accepted onto an OSPAP course but, sadly, there are no OSPAP courses in Scotland — so my family and I will need to move to England while I undertake the course. I have been accepted on to the University of Sunderland course and look forward to starting in September 2021.
The support I found through the Scottish government skills recognition process has been invaluable. It helped benchmark the skills I developed as a pharmacist in Egypt, and link them to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, so that employers in Scotland can understand the skills I have. I was delighted to have my skills and experience benchmarked at level 10 of the Scottish credit and qualifications framework, which is equivalent to a degree.
In addition to this, Skills Recognition Scotland supported me in becoming a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS). The RPS provide pharmacists, both in the UK and overseas, with invaluable resources and membership keeps me updated with the pharmacy landscape in Scotland and the rest of the UK. On 11 May 2021, I took part in a webinar with Clare Morrison, director of RPS Scotland, and Laura Wilson, practice and policy lead for RPS Scotland. The webinar was really helpful in explaining what RPS membership can offer pharmacists like me, including mentorship opportunities, resources, peer support and webinars.
Reading The Pharmaceutical Journal allows me to learn more about pharmacy in Great Britain. Although I’m yet to practice pharmacy in the UK, I have noticed a few differences between the role here and in Egypt. To give just one example, the pharmacist role in Egypt combines the roles of both pharmacy and pharmacy technician in the UK.
I think the experience that overseas pharmacists bring makes a real contribution to the UK. Developments in the healthcare system mean there’s an increasing demand for collaborative work between healthcare professionals from different backgrounds. Diversity of experience strengthens our healthcare system, and improves the quality and safety of patient care.
My advice for other pharmacists who have had similar experiences to me is, simply: never give up. Nothing is impossible. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. And when you get there, you will be thrilled at how you have achieved things that you once believed impossible.