Record highs in the leaving cert results led to a jump in the marks needed to do pharmacy, but the reality is more nuanced, writes Fintan Moore.

We’re all aware of the recent Leaving Certificate results setting new records for high points due to the inflation caused by a combination of predicted grades, and the modifications made to written papers by offering more choice. The consequent effect of the buoyant marks was a knock-on jump in the points required for high-demand courses such as for pharmacy, which hit a starred 613 points, so many students with excellent results were unable to get a place. That is remarkable in itself, and is a phenomenon caused by the fact that so many school-leavers want to do pharmacy, leading to competition for places. But the other question that really needs to be asked is whether or not it’s right that so many high-achievers are choosing pharmacy as a career path.

Anybody getting 613-plus points is clearly intelligent across a number of subjects and has also worked hard and worked smart to use that intelligence. So while it’s nice for the reputation of the pharmacy profession to have so many of the best and the brightest young people clamouring to join our ranks, somebody should be tempering their starry optimism with a splash of cold-water reality about what awaits them after five years of third-level. If their long-term goal is to work in industry, then there are better courses to lead in that direction. If they want to work in hospital pharmacy, they should spend a decent bit of work experience time in one to see if they would really want that for life.

A lot of pharmacists these days work in regulation or administration, but I doubt if that is what the crop of first-years are dreaming of when they start their course, and there are easier routes into that kind of role.

The most visible pharmacist career that most of these Leaving Cert kids will be aware of is in community pharmacy, and the damp reality is that the job requires more people-smarts than book-smarts to be tolerable, let alone enjoyable. A graduate can know everything there is to know about the pharmacology of calcium-channel blockers or NOACs, and none of this information will be a blind bit of use when they’re stood at a counter explaining to some guy who’s complaining that he only got 30 tablets but there are 31 days in that month. So if you can tolerate the day-to-day crap of dealing with patients, suppliers, doctors, regulators and the HSE while wearing a smile most of the time, then you might be alright.

There are a few big issues at play here. The first is obviously that it’s morally dubious to funnel loads of young people into a college course leading to a career that many of them will find makes them miserable. It is also wrong that the ultimately unhappy cohort of super-students ‘won’ the points race against other students who would have really enjoyed pharmacy as a career, but couldn’t get a college place. There is a societal cost to all of this because universities are insanely expensive to run, and wasting college resources on people doing unsuitable degrees is bad value for money.

And last, but not least, there is an ongoing manpower problem in community pharmacy which will not be solved by the over-production of graduates who don’t remain in the sector, but instead get out after a couple of years, if they even stay that long.

‘Sorry’ not the Hardest Word

I like to read posts on the two online pharmacy fora, Pharmabuddy and Irish Pharmacy Forum, as a way to get a sense of what’s occupying people’s minds. An interesting point was made recently on Pharmabuddy by a pharmacist who reckons that pharmacists have a habit of apologising for things even when it’s absolutely not our fault, ie, when a GP has failed to send on a prescription, we break the news with ‘sorry, but the prescription hasn’t come in yet’. The pharmacist probably has a point, but I’m not sure whether it might be an Irish thing — and the ‘sorry’ is a shortened ‘sorry I can’t do more for you’. Either way, now that it’s been mentioned, I’m more aware of myself using it!

There is an ongoing manpower problem in community pharmacy which will not be solved by the over-production of graduates who don’t remain in the sector

The Inhospitable Hospital

A perennial bugbear of mine is the way hospitals seem to be designed to be as impenetrable as possible when it comes to contacting prescribers. If the people in charge really cared about efficient patient management, they would have dedicated phone numbers or email addresses for community pharmacists to send in queries. Instead, we get bounced around articularly irritating experience with the Royal Victoria recently. A patient handed in a prescription for Betnesol drops and Canesten solution. The first item was out of stock in both wholesalers, and the second is a ULM with a minimum three-day wait. I was already busy up to the two eyeballs, but volunteered to ring the hospital. After wasting 20 minutes speaking pointlessly to four different people, the best I got was somebody who knew Betnesol was hard to get, but would need to speak to a doctor. I waited two hours for a call-back that didn’t come, then the patient arrived saying that the hospital had rung her and said to go to Boots because they had the drops. No disrespect to Boots, but the chances of them having Canesten solution in stock was pretty low. However, I know when it’s time to quit, so I did.

Contributor Information

Fintan Moore graduated as a pharmacist in 1990 from TCD and currently runs a pharmacy in Clondalkin. His email address is: greenparkpharmacy@gmail.com.