Pharmacy at Portsmouth university – change and challenge

Pamela Mason visited the school of pharmacy and biomedical sciences at Portsmouth university recently to find out about its teaching and research programmes

Change and challenge are probably the two words which best describe the school of pharmacy at Portsmouth at the moment. More properly called the school of pharmacy and biomedical sciences, it has, during the past five years, been through an enormous transition. This has included not only the development of the four-year master of pharmacy (MPharm) programme, but also a significant reorientation of the school, shifting the emphasis from physical science to health science.

Head of school

The school is situated in the centre of Portsmouth, in the St Michael’s building, part of which was opened in March, 1997, by Professor James Watson (Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of DNA). It is the largest school in the faculty of science and one of the largest in the university. The head of the school is Dr John Smart, who joined the pharmacy department in 1988 as a lecturer in pharmaceutics; prior to that he owned a community pharmacy in Weston-Super-Mare. His main research interest is in biomaterials and drug delivery. Dr John Wong, a pharmacologist, is the deputy head of the school.

At present, about 360 students are studying on the pharmacy undergraduate programme, more than 75 students are registered on master of philosophy (MPhil) and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees, with a further 120 to 130 undertaking taught postgraduate courses (postgraduate diplomas and MScs). From September, 2000, the total number of undergraduates will increase to reflect the new fourth year and one of Dr Smart’s current challenges is to obtain funding and staff for what will probably amount to a further 120 students. His bid for funding – to the Higher Education Funding Council – has been prepared largely on the basis on the quality of the pharmacy pathway, and the current shortage of pharmacists within the region. This is because of the increased number of pharmacists required to cover longer pharmacy opening hours and to take on new roles, for example within primary care groups. Dr Smart told me how grateful he was for the assistance of local hospital and community pharmacists and bodies like the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and the National Pharmaceutical Association in preparing the bid.

Dr Smart says his main achievement during his two years as head has been in successfully managing the school through enormous transition. Transference of the physics department to geology, and a much reduced chemistry section caused by a decrease in the number of applications for chemistry degrees, has effectively meant the loss of physical sciences from the school, and the university agenda has been to put the school under a health science umbrella. All the programmes offered – including pharmacy, pharmacology, biomedical science and radiography – now have an overall health science theme, Dr Smart says. Moreover, the profile of pharmacy within the school has been raised, partly by bringing key pharmacists into strategic positions on the governing body and partly by reorientating staff and resources to make pharmacy more prominent.


One of the main strengths of the Portsmouth school is research. A strong and wide-ranging research base is important in any school of pharmacy, Dr Smart says, simply because it helps to attract both funding and good staff. It also generates enthusiasm in the department and encourages undergraduate students, particularly in their third and fourth years, to be at the forefront of knowledge and new discoveries.

There are several prominent research groups within the school, including those concerned with biomaterials and drug delivery, natural products chemistry, biomedical science, pharmacology and pharmacy practice. Facilities include two large chemical synthesis suites, a formulation and drug delivery laboratory, a molecular biology laboratory and radioisotope, instrument and solvent preparation rooms. There has been substantial investment in equipment, including new nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometers, silicon graphic molecular modelling systems and, most recently, an atomic force microscope. Research is currently sponsored by research councils, the European Union, charities, industry, overseas governments, university bursaries or sometimes by students financing themselves.

Pharmacy practice

The other main strength at Portsmouth is pharmacy practice. Teaching in pharmacy practice covers dispensing, administration and management in the National Health Service, health economics and pharmacy law and ethics. There is also a strong emphasis on communication skills and response to symptoms, and a specially designed pharmacy counter at the front of one of the seminar rooms helps students to start to learn the art of patient counselling.

Portsmouth has six teacher-practitioners, two of whom are hospital-based and four of whom are in community practice – one sponsored by Boots, one by Lloyds, one by Moss and one by Tesco. “These individuals have revolutionised the pharmacy practice department,” says Dr Smart “and thankfully, our teaching is now increasingly relevant to the real world of community and hospital practice. They also allow, in many cases, for student teaching on a one-to-one basis.”

Professor Ian Jones is the director of pharmacy practice research, and he and other colleagues have attracted external funding for research into the role of the pharmacist and the pharmacy within the NHS.

The MPharm programme

In addition to pharmacy practice, the four-year MPharm programme, which is managed by Dr David Brown, covers all the usual pharmaceutical and biological sciences and clinical pharmacy. There is also the option to study a foreign language in the first and second years. Computer assisted learning packages are increasingly used to supplement lectures, practical work and tutorials, and lecture notes are frequently posted on the school intranet so that students can catch up on anything they missed or failed to understand.

One of the main aims of the undergraduate programme is to encourage students to develop what are known as “key transferable skills”. These include numeracy, IT expertise, effective communication, problem solving, self-directed learning and teamworking. Group work has become an increasingly important part of the course, with each student in a group of, say, three to four taking responsibility for one part of a project. The group is then assessed as a whole, and, according to Dr Brown, this provides an effective learning environment for students. “No one wants to let the team down and it is fairly rare for students not to pull their weight. In any case, you soon find out if they don’t,” he says.

A similar philosophy is used in the teaching of calculations. Students are set traditional calculations, but instead of having their answers individually marked, they enter them into a hand-held terminal, which produces a histogram of the individual results and a mean mark for each question for the whole group. This method is proving both effective and fun for the students. According to Dr Adrian Hunt (head of the division of pharmacy practice), students value the immediacy of the feedback this method provides and the fact that they can see their own performance in relation to the rest of the group. It is relatively non-threatening, and allows tutors to identify common problems within the group – almost everybody will usually get the same things wrong – and address these immediately, so improving the students’ learning.

Dr Brown says that the fourth year has allowed greater opportunities to ensure first-year students attain the required level of literacy and numeracy, while in the final year several subjects will be taught in far more depth, and at a higher level than before.

Postgraduate programmes

Portsmouth has a taught MSc in clinical pharmacy, which is mainly for hospital pharmacists, and an MSc in community pharmacy, which had its first intake of 10 students in September, 1999. The course manager, Dr Jane Portlock, explains that the new MSc in community pharmacy is aimed at community pharmacists who want to enhance their clinical knowledge and professional skills and increase their involvement in the pharmaceutical care of patients.

Pharmacists can study for a postgraduate certificate, which generally takes one year to complete, a diploma, which takes two years or the master of science which takes three years. Students attend a study day at the university once a month – so they need to live within reach of Portsmouth – and complete practice-based tasks and assignments such as patient case scenarios in between. In addition, students have to collect evidence of their continuing professional development and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s CPD pilot model is being used as a framework for this.

Student Association

Portsmouth has a thriving pharmacy student association and its president, Mr Khalid Ahmed, says that the association’s strength lies in its willingness to cater for everybody, from whatever ethnic or cultural background, something which students value enormously, particularly when they leave home for the first time.

No student problem – financial, social or course-related – is too small or too large, he adds, and everyone is encouraged to join.

The school of pharmacy and biomedical science website can be found at

Dr Mason is a pharmacists and freelance writer from Sydenham, south London

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, January 2000;():DOI:10.1211/PJ.2000.20000050

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