Profession should invest some faith in a metamorphosis of the Society

On one level the future of the profession has been decided: the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain as we know it will be no more because there is a Government will to set up a regulatory body in the form of a General Pharmaceutical Council. There is a more nebulous aspiration to set up a body akin to a royal college. This is, for now, an amorphous beast and there is a danger that it will seek to be all things to all people. There also appears to have been an unwritten assumption that the good old Society will take over the profession’s representative role and form the basis of the royal college.

To many this may seem slightly counter-intuitive. After all, is there not a widely held view in the profession that the Society has previously sacrificed the representative role at the altar of regulation?

The Society has not always been inclusive, to many it seems remote and it is not perceived as the authoritative voice of the profession. There is a leadership role in our profession that needs a home, preferably in a royal college. Clearly hearts and minds have to be won over if the Society is to form the genesis of a royal college and actually attract membership.

So, it might be worth asking some questions about what a successful royal college might look like. The first question that needs to be answered is whether the college should be elitist or inclusive. Bearing in mind that we are a relatively small profession, a critical mass of members needs to be achieved if a college is to be sustainable in the long term. Elitism is not the answer. Inclusivity remains a challenge if membership of the college is not mandatory.

The scale of the task must not be underestimated. Currently the UK Clinical Pharmacy Association and the College of Pharmacy Practice attract a combined membership of little more than 5 per cent of the current Society membership. The organisations have a useful role but have clearly failed when it comes to engaging and attracting the profession, particularly in the community sector. We need to engage the wider profession at a basic level and provide a culture that is aspirational, drives up standards and enables the “jobbing pharmacists” to feel supported in their professional roles in a way hitherto undreamt of.

It will be a challenge for any future organisation to engage both community and hospital pharmacy fully as well as the many other diverse and specialist aspects of the profession.

So, a royal college needs to support members of the profession and there could be a key role for the college in being involved in undergraduate education, continuing professional development and, ultimately, revalidation and recertification. This would also generate a useful income stream.

The bread-and-butter stuff is vitally important but, in line with an aspirational role for pharmacy, the college needs to establish itself as a centre of excellence by gaining a reputation for education and research and supporting professionalism.

But any future royal college cannot exist by education alone and the profession is desperate for a mouthpiece — for a single body that is the authoritative voice of pharmacy.

There is not a single pharmacy body that is currently fulfilling all of these functions. Having said that, we should start to consider whether a new royal college should start as a completely new organisation or whether we meld together the best of what we currently have.

My experience of new organisations is that they achieve little in their first year of operation, start to find their feet during the second year and start providing a useful function in the third year. At a time when pharmacy practice, particularly in the community, is moving at a rapid pace, is three years of impotence what the profession really needs?

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society currently has a fundamental grasp of the education issues, has links with the vast majority of stakeholders and has structures in place which connect it to the wider profession. I have learnt over the past few years that there is some good work going on at Lambeth but the problem has been that this good work has not been adequately communicated to the wider membership. The Society has been inward rather than outward looking.

I have looked at what other organisations have to offer and they come nowhere near to matching the potential of a revitalised and more inclusive Society. There are worthy and elite academic organisations, which are tiny, have few resources and do not have any expertise of communicating with the wider profession. There are representative organisations that do not have any understanding of the broader educational issues that so greatly affect the profession.

Our profession has two broad choices. The first is to start with a completely blank sheet of paper and decide what we want. While we are busy debating the structures, the membership and the colour of the headed notepaper, the health economy will advance in the absence of a representative voice for pharmacy. In five years’ time we will emerge from our slumbers. We will have a nice new royal college but, quite simply, we will have nowhere to go professionally.

The alternative is that the profession invests some faith in a metamorphosis of the current Society. We need to acknowledge what the Society has done well but we have to make it clear that it needs to do more. Communication with Government, the profession and the public could have been better. The profession has to learn that it is not just OK but that it is entirely desirable to bang the pharmacy drum. We may regard ourselves as an honourable profession — we are. That does not mean that we should ignore modern techniques of marketing and communication.

If we adopt this model then we will not have to waste valuable time arguing about structures and membership. We will be able to get on with spreading the pharmacy gospel and moving the profession forwards. Although I have been an outspoken critic, I recognise that there is much that is good about the Society. There is enough that is good to form the framework of a new royal college but the membership has to be convinced.

My concluding message to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society is: pull your finger out! Tell us how you are going to move the profession forwards. Show us a vision of what the royal college is going to be and how you are going to be a true advocate for pharmacy. Demonstrate your commitment to all that is good about pharmacy, show some leadership and maybe, just maybe, the profession will follow you.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, March 2007;()::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2023.1.171209

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